In the Halls of Power

June 20, 2024

M. Brejt

To frum Jews, Lakewood, the bastion of Torah in the United States, is the center of the US, where everything important happens.

Mr. Arnold (Ovadia)Wechsler is a newcomer to Lakewood and hails from a drastically different center of the United States: the top of the New York police department.

Mr. Wechsler was privileged to have seen Lakewood in its early days back when the Yashan had just been built, and the members of the yeshivah numbered around one hundred.

“My ninth grade rebbi, Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Herman, was a talmid of Rav Aharon, and he took our class to Lakewood for Shavuos.”

Today, as a resident of Lakewood, he feels privileged to be part of this community as he looks back and reflects on his years in the police department and gives us his insight about the tension in the world today.

Head of human resources

Despite his high-level career, Mr. Wechsler comes across as your typical zeide, easy to talk to, with deft wit and sharp observations, and he shares stories along with classic Jewish wisdom.

The Brooklyn native cherished the dream of being a history teacher and started off his career in the Yeshivah of Eastern Parkway. He then switched over to public school, and his dreams faded away when faced with the tough attitudes of the inner-city students. “These were street kids. They had no interest in learning history. The kids were hostile, and I was under a lot of stress.”

Young Arnold Wechsler then made an atypical move. He went down to the New York City Department of Personnel and took a civil servant system test. “It’s a real system with no bias in the hiring process. Whoever scores highest on the test gets a job.”

Mr. Wechsler scored well, and he found himself hired by the police department. “I started off in an entry level position in human resources. My job was to identify how many cops were doing desk jobs and replace them with civilians.”

Over the years, he got promoted and climbed the ladder in human resources until in January 2012, when he was promoted to the job of deputy commissioner over the police department—the fourth highest position in the entire police force.

As the deputy commissioner of personnel, Mr. Wechsler was responsible for investigating police officer candidates, hiring all police officers and civilians who worked in the police department (i.e., lawyers, accountants, computer programmers, doctors, clerks, janitors, etc.), assigning, transferring, and maintaining personnel files, and promoting all 57,000 employees. He also provided medical oversight to all police officers in locations throughout the city. Approximately 925 uniformed and civilian employees worked for him in the personnel bureau of the NYPD.

This unusual job afforded him lots of interesting experiences and plenty of opportunities to help out his fellow Yidden.

From the top brass

One Friday night, a frum man was jaywalking across a Brooklyn street and was stopped by a cop. (This happened many years ago, when cops actually gave out tickets to jaywalking offenders. “Today, as long as you don’t murder someone, they won’t arrest you,” Mr. Wechsler quips.)

The cop bore down on the unsuspecting man and demanded his ID, which he obviously didn’t have. “It’s Friday night!” the man protested. “We don’t carry anything!”

The cop was unmoved. “Then I need you to sign this paper stating who you are,” he ordered.

This option was also refused, and finally, the cop, frustrated and angry, offered the desperate man an impossible choice. “Either you sign this paper, or I’m arresting you!”

Stunned and wondering where his Friday night had gone, the frum man lost his head and out of fear, reluctantly signed the paper.

“This story made its way from person to person, all the way through the police department, until it finally came to me,” Mr. Wechsler says. “I called this cop down and told him he needed a reeducation. I reassigned him to the middle of Harlem.”

In a similar story, Mr. Wechsler was attending the wedding of a frum police officer and saw another officer giving out tickets to someone who had double parked. “I don’t know if this matters to you,” Mr. Wechsler informed the police officer, “but the guy getting married is a fellow cop.”

The police officer ignored him, which wasn’t the smartest idea, as he also found himself called down to Mr. Wechsler’s office for a talk.

In another incident, Mr. Wechsler used his influence at the levayah of one of the gedolei hador, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum. “I was standing in the corner, listening to speeches, and there was a helicopter circling above the levayah for crowd control. It was so loud I couldn’t hear a thing!”

Mr. Wechsler approached the lieutenant standing near him and asked him to call the inspector in charge of security. When he showed up, the deputy commissioner said one thing: “I can’t hear the speeches.”

The inspector saluted. “Yes, sir!”

“Within 30 seconds the helicopter was gone,” Mr. Wechsler says with satisfaction. “I always tell people who were at the levayah that if they heard the speeches, they can thank me.”

In a humorous postscript to this story, after the levayah was over, Mr. Wechsler met Joe Fox, the chief of police in New York City, and was talking to him.

“Some macher type I didn’t know walked by and wanted to impress me. He came over to us and said to me, ‘Do you know who this is? He’s Joe Fox, the chief of Brooklyn South! If you need anything, reach out to him!’”

Joe Fox smiled and pointed to Mr. Wechsler. “Do you know who this is? He’s my boss!”

The man took a look at Mr. Wechsler’s beard and peyos and walked off, completely confused. “I was never out in the street,” Mr. Wechsler remarks. “I never wore a uniform. The average guy in the street didn’t know what I did.”

While not an official liaison, Mr. Wechsler was the address for many when the Jewish community needed him. “One Shabbos afternoon, a bunch of bachurim came banging on my door saying their friend was in trouble with the police.”

Yeshivah Tiferes Elimelech was near his home in Staten Island.

Mr. Wechsler calmed them down and told them not to worry. The next day, the bachurim came back with the report that their friend was arrested, as the custodian claimed that the boy had robbed him. Mr. Wechsler grabbed his badge and went off to the station to straighten things out. After some questioning of both the police officer and the custodian, the story came out. The custodian harbored a grudge against the community and blamed the boy. The boy was let go.

“Since then,” Mr. Wechsler concludes, “I’ve been a folk hero in Yeshivah Tiferes Elimelech.”

Meeting the one in power

“I had the chance to meet three presidents,” Mr. Wechsler informs me twinkle in his eye. “But I chose not to meet one of them!”

The first was when George W. Bush came to the headquarters to thank the police department for their work during 9/11. Mr. Wechsler was pleased to meet the president and shake his hand.

However, when President Obama came to visit about ten years later, Mr. Wechsler wasn’t so excited. “I was annoyed at him for his policies toward Israel, and I didn’t want to meet him. But at the same time, I couldn’t just ignore him.”

Mr. Wechsler exercised the ubiquitous excuse: Minchah. “I left the police building every day to go to Minchah, and it wasn’t at the same time every day.” Mr. Wechsler left the building about an hour before Obama was due to arrive and was stopped by the guards on his way out.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to pray,” Mr. Wechsler said, confused. “I do this every day!”

But because of the president’s visit, things were different. “They told me that today if I leave I can’t come back. And that was perfectly fine with me!”

The last president Mr. Wechsler met was President Trump before he became president, which came with its own story.

“Donald Trump was being honored with the title of honorary commissioner. When he showed up at the office and came downstairs with his badge, they asked him for his social security number for the paperwork.

“My social security number?” the real estate magnate repeated. “I don’t know it!”

Trump turned to his companions and asked them if they knew it, but they were also clueless.

“I was stuck,” Mr. Wechsler says. “I had to give him the badge, but I needed his social security number. We finally decided that I would give him the badge, and he would call me the next day with his social security number. Well, it’s many years later,” Mr. Wechsler says ruefully, “and he hasn’t called me yet!”

But Mr. Wechsler’s favorite story happened when he sat behind Michael Bloomberg at a swearing-in ceremony. The mayor had just become a grandfather, and Mr. Wechsler leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder. “Welcome to the zeide club!”

The civil service expectation

Working in the civil services isn’t the typical job for a frum person, but Mr. Wechsler had a positive experience as a proud frum Jew in the police office.

“The civil service isn’t allowed to discriminate, so if you’re qualified, you’ll get hired. But you need to play by the rules.”

“A young police officer once called me and said that he was going to Cleveland for Pesach, and he had to work the day after Pesach. What should he do? I told him to get in the car and drive as soon as Yom Tov was over! He needed to be there for his job.”

Mr. Wechsler proudly stood out in his frum mode of dress and was known for his Yiddishkeit to the point that everyone else in the police department knew about it.

“I once had a very late meeting on Friday afternoon,” Mr. Wechsler relates. “I was in the elevator on my way home, and the chief of police, Joe Esposito, came in and started yelling at me. ‘What are you doing here? Shabbos! Shabbos!’ It was summer, and I had enough time, but I never expected to get mussar from the chief of police!”

However, strangers in the street had a harder time believing it. “I was once driving in an unmarked police car on a bridge. I rolled down my window to give the police number, which meant I wouldn’t need to pay a toll, and the man in the toll booth just stared at my cap and beard. ‘That’s the best costume I ever saw!’”

Twice a year, Mr. Wechsler gave a course to the police officers about Yiddishkeit. “It wasn’t a kiruv course. I was just telling them what they needed to know to serve the Jewish community.”

With characteristic humor, Mr. Wechsler would educate them about the time when Jews turn into pyromaniacs and burn the chametz. (Don’t call the fire department!) He would explain about tashlich and warn them to be on guard Simchas Torah and Pesach. Mr. Wechsler claims he never had a problem with anti-Semitism for a simple reason. “No one dared lay a finger on me as I got further up in the police department. I was in charge!”

However, as he readily admits, times have changed.

The uncertain world

“Life is different today. There’s a lot of tension. I used to take the train in Manhattan all the time, and now my kids won’t let me use it. The anti-Semitism is too strong.”

While in Lakewood itself, our relationships with our non-Jewish neighbors and the government are peaceful, Mr. Wechsler cautions against taking it for granted. “The police have a great relationship with Lakewood, but the surrounding communities don’t have it so easy. There’s hostility in all four directions.”

His advice for handling the anti-Semitism and anger? “Treat people well. Remember, especially if you’re coming into a new community, that they were here first and they can’t be expected to understand and accept our needs right away. Be sensitive and put yourself in their shoes.”

He laughs as he mentions the cases of the police officers ordering that a sukkah be taken down within ten days. “Say, ‘no problem, the sukkah will come down by then.’ It takes time for a relationship to develop.”

Finally, he urges people to be careful about following traffic laws and shares a story about Rav Elchonon Wasserman to prove his point.

“In 1937, Rav Elchonon came to America to collect money. He was walking on the Lower East Side with a talmid one night when he abruptly stopped walking. The traffic light was red. “Rebbi,” his talmid said. “There are no cars coming!”

Rav Elchonon shook his head. “Dina d’malchusa dina. We need to follow the law of the land.”

From a safety perspective and for our relationship with our neighbors, Mr. Wechsler feels that it’s vital that safety laws be followed.

“A traffic light doesn’t mean slow down. You might be able to park somewhere illegal and get away with it, but it’s against the law.”

He bemoans the fact that he often sees women holding their siddurim while driving. “They’re not driving, and they’re not davening when they do that!”

Mr. Wechsler spent years in the thick of the action, and retirement is a big change. “You think retirement is a vacation, you can wake up late, do what you like, but I do miss it at times.”

Today, Mr. Wechsler spends much of his day learning and enjoying the opportunities Lakewood offers with its variety of shuls and yeshivos.

He might not be the top brass anymore, but he’s still in the halls of power.