A Las Vegas police officer honored Princeton-area first responders by recalling his own struggle to live up to the standards of his job and the demands of his observant Judaism.
Det. Steve Riback was the keynote speaker at a gathering in the Frist Campus Center at Princeton University on Nov. 3, paying tribute to area police, firefighters, and rescue squad members. The event was sponsored by Chabad of Greater Mercer County-Princeton, in conjunction with Chabad of the Windsors and Chabad at Princeton University
Riback, a detective in the Las Vegas Police Department, paid homage to Michael Kenwood, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad member who died after a search for occupants of a submerged car during Hurricane Irene. Former Princeton Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand moderated the talk and introduced the first responders in attendance.
A cop in the epicenter of the gambling world in Las Vegas, Riback came to his Judaism through Shabbat meals at the table of the local Chabad rabbi and his wife, he told the gathering. This led him to consider just how much pain the Holocaust caused Jews. Nonobservant, with only a passing acquaintance with Passover and Hanukka, Riback embarked upon a path to deepen his Jewish observance. He grew a beard and began wearing a kipa and eating kosher food.
‘Tiny ripple of hope’
As an undercover cop, his beard and hat fit right in with his disguise. He felt conflicted, however, about mixing in the underworld of pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers. He took counsel from his rabbi, who assured him his job was to maintain public order. He later switched to a non-uniformed desk job that would not conflict with his Shabbat observance.
His new supervisor accommodated Riback’s religious need to cover his head and wear a trimmed short beard. But, he said, after six weeks in his new assignment, he ran into a high-ranking officer who ordered him to remove his beard at once; beards were permitted for medical reasons only, he was told.
When the department rejected a compromise — a manicured beard and baseball cap — he sought help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern Nevada. After a costly two-year legal battle, which concluded with a favorable ruling by the U.S. District Court, the department offered a settlement, allowing him to wear a well-groomed beard and cap.
Riback, who is married and has a baby daughter, is now known as the “Kosher Cop.” He is still deskbound in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department — and said he champs at the bit to get back into the field.
Summarizing his journey, he quoted Robert F. Kennedy. “‘Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope,’” said Riback, “‘and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”