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Kosher Cop

Kosher Cop

Las Vegas Undercover Officer Fights For His Religious Rights

Mr. & Mrs. Steve Riback
Mr. & Mrs. Steve Riback

In many ways, Steve Riback is a typical All-American guy. Born and raised in Southern California, he grew up aiming to be an elementary school teacher. As Steve progressed in college in Nevada, however, he became restless. Motivated by the same desire to help others, he found himself pursuing a job as a policeman in Las Vegas. He wanted to be a warrior for good in his own way.

Little did Steve know how much of a warrior G‑d wanted him to be.

While Steve was Jewish, he wasn't raised observant. His family He wanted to be a warrior for good in his own way. would light the Chanukah candles and would do a mini seder for Passover, but for the most part, Steve never felt a true connection to Judaism. He simply was not exposed to it. However, he did believe in good values, and his parents raised him to "treat others the way he want to be treated."

But there was something missing. "I wanted something," Steve explains. "I just didn't know exactly what it was. I couldn't quite put my finger on it."

It wasn't until he spent a Shabbat at the Chabad of Green Valley that he truly understood his desire to connect to good. A spark was lit in him as he saw the rabbi's wife light the Shabbat candles From that moment, Steve wanted to know more and more. He started to read about Judaism from books and the internet, and by learning with rabbis. "It felt like I was going home," Steve recalls. "I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be."

Because he was working undercover at the time, he was able to grow a beard, and he was able to wear a hat. He started observing Shabbat.

But it was just as Steve was truly evolving into an observant Jew that he came up against opposition from the very place he least expected it... his own department.

At first, the "friction" caused by Steve's observances seemed to be easily overcome. On his first year observing Shabbat, he was asked to work on New Year's (like every police officer in Las Vegas), which happened to fall on a Saturday. Without much fuss, he was allowed to come in late to work. He was sure that all future situations would be just as easy to deal with.

He was wrong.

The Problems Begin

Steve's unit went out to eat every day at nonkosher restaurants. As he decided to become kosher, he wanted to be able to bring his own food to work. "That subsequently set off a flurry of issues. They said that whatever my sergeant said I had to do, I had to do. Without question."

While Steve was eventually able to bring in his own food, he started to become aware that being Jewish in the Las Vegas Police Department might not be as easy as he thought.

Steve was used to fighting against drug dealers, against prostitutes, against the evil in the world. Eventually, though, it became clear that Steve would have to fight against the very people that had provided him with the chance to bring good to the world.

Steve's voice turned gritty Steve would have to fight the very people that had provided him with the chance to bring good to the world. as he described the "painstaking" process he had to go through after his department decided they couldn't keep him on as an undercover policeman if he was observing Shabbat. With restrained frustration, he described how they gave him a desk job instead of putting him out in the field as he was used to. They hid him from public view.

And then, even after the department hid him from public view, they decided he had to cut his beard and uncover his head. His repeated requests to the department were denied. One reason they gave was that it was inappropriate to bring religion into the workplace.

But, according to Steve, religion had always been pervasive in the department. "People would wear crosses, for example." But Steve, who wanted to wear a short, trimmed beard and hat was denied.

"It was too important of an issue not to fight," explains Steve. He did not see this as a small case, but as the same fight Jews had been going through since they existed.

And so, Steve, with nothing more than his fervent faith, pushed forward and decided to challenge one of the top five police departments in the nation. His own employer. The very enforcer of the laws he believed in so much.

To this day, he is still very much in the midst of his battle. Aided by the help of several pro-bono lawyers, including some from the ACLU, he has been able to slowly and painstakingly fight for his rights by bringing a lawsuit against the Las Vegas Police Department.

"We won the right to permanently wear a beard in my current assignment and that court determined that the department had violated my civil rights." And while this was definitely a huge step forward, the department was able to prevent him from wearing a hat by changing their policies so that, although hats were allowed while Steve had asked for permission to wear one, they are now longer allowed at all.

The department has also changed other policies since Steve's lawsuit, such as disallowing anyone from ever being able to have a beard or wear anything religious. In an effort to fight against Steve's civil rights, they have further restricted the entire force's rights.

Since Steve began his battle with the department, he has been criticized strongly, not only by the outside world, but by the very people he believes he is fighting for: other Jews. He has been told to lay low, to not make a big fuss even if it is obvious that his rights are being violated.

What motivates Steve when even people from his own community attack him for his battle?

Steve's answer to this question is to look at people who, like him, have recently been in the news for the work they had done for the Jewish people. The Chabad House in Mumbai.

Steve, who had been quite professional throughout our interview, suddenly became incredibly emotional as he described how, "I started from a Chabad house. Just like the Mumbai house." He knew how important it was to light the sparks within Jews, how important it was to do your best no matter what situation you were put in. And it was people like Gabi and Rivki Holtzberg as well as his own Rabbi of Green Valley that inspired him to fight on, despite the odds being stacked against him. Despite the eyes on him.

As Steve's understanding of doing good has refined and become clearer he understands that "doing good starts from being proud of who you are." And as a Jew, he believes that he can't allow even a powerful police department to tell him that he can't be proud of his heritage and the laws of his G‑d.

And, just as the Mumbai attacks were met with a desire to do good, Steve has looked at his situation as an incredible opportunity.

While many people might crumble at so much opposition, Steve understands that G‑d has put him in this situation for a reason. And that reason is to fight for truth. To fight for justice. To fight for good.

Just like a good police officer.

Postscript from Steve:

January 27, 2009

Today I did something that I had not been allowed to do for over two years. The normal routine of taking off my kippah in the parking lot before entering my office will no longer happen again. For the first time in years, today I went to work wearing a head-covering and beard! My battle against the police department and their religiously discriminating policies is now officially over.

For over two years I fought an extremely hard battle, with the assistance of eight attorneys, to protect our inalienable religious rights and freedoms in this great country. This fight was not solely for Jews—it was for all religions! I took a stand against one of the biggest police departments in the country and I will forever be proud of what was accomplished.

As a result of the lawsuit and settlement, I will be able to keep my beard and wear a kippah under a hat at work. In addition, there is a new policy and procedure that has been implemented in order to prevent this type of discrimination from happening to someone else. The new policy, procedure, and rulings by the judge has established a nice new precedent!

Elad Nehorai is originally from Chicago and now studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.
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Malka S. March 11, 2009

To anon.--toronto It might've been waiting, but it doesn't mean he shouldn't have done it. His soul's purpose is this and that is why he chose it.

Esther the Queen of Persia should have hidden from the King's talent scouts--but she didn't! Reply

Anonymous Toronto, Canada March 4, 2009

Kosher Cop Whatever vocation one chooses in life, they should explore whether that profession will interfere with their private lives. I think that if he wanted to become an observant Jew, he should not have become a policeman. It is widely known that police workers work shift work and different schedules which often impose on their personal and private lives, lifestyles and committments. It was a conflict waiting to happen. Reply

Dr. Harry Hamburger Miami, Florida, USA March 3, 2009

Kosher Cop/Sinai Lives The comment by Sinai LIves was "right on". Throughout the ages, Jews have tried to fit in, and adopt the idolatrous customs of their neighbors. The problem of the Kosher Cop began when non Jews look at religious Jews and remark, "why don't you act like the rest of the "reform" Jews, why do you have to different. By giving up our identity we do not gain respect, but rather cease to different, and a guiding spiritual light to the world. The problem is not Jews becoming more religious, but rather secular Jews confusing the world as to what a Jew really is! A study was done in Israel regarding four generations of Reform, Conservative, and Chabad Jews. A hundred families were followed, and after 4 generations there were 30 families who identified themselves as Jews in the Reform group. In the conservative group there were 300 Jewish families after 4 generations. In the Chabad group there were 3000 Jewish families. There is hope, but it will not come from secular assimilated Jews! Reply

Sinai Lives March 2, 2009

Thanks! Like Zusel said, where does the legal system draw the line?
It respects the Jew when the Jew respects him/herself.
All religions must see the core of faith coming from Torah; anything real in both religion and secular life and law, originates in Torah. Reply

Linda Schulman Citrus Heights, CA February 22, 2009

Kosher Cop I would not have been as brave. As a woman, I would have feared retaliation. I would have expected to be fired, made to ridicule by the other officers thereby having no friendly co-workers and isolated. Furthermore, taking on not just any job, but the Las Vegas police dept would have made me fear for my life. Good thing I'm not Steve, because he was brave and fought. This is what a hero does. Reply

Susan Katzman La Quinta, CA February 20, 2009

Kosher Cop "Let freedom ring". Isn't that what America is about? Not really, It comes with a price. We have to fight for our racial freedoms, gay rights, equal pay for women and of course for religious beliefs and freedom. Others have used their voices or paid with their lives to give us our inalienable rights. You have joined the elite ranks of those who won't give up, who fight not just for their personal rights, but for the rights of others. If we keep chipping away at the injustices in our society, perhaps someday we all WILL be equal. Thank you Steve for your courage, stamina and unwaivering faith to change a broken system. I couldn't be prouder! Reply

M.H. Yerushelayim/North Miami Beach, israel/Florida February 19, 2009

the picture... I commend Officer Riback, and hope G-d continues to bless him with success (and patience) in his journey! Reply

Tzvi Schwartz Northridge, CA February 19, 2009

Wow! Steve a true fighter in G-d's army! You should see infinite Goodness in your life. Reply

Joan Meltzer Palm Desert, Ca February 18, 2009

Kosher Cop Hi Steve,
I am so very proud that you fought your fight and never gave up. I am so very proud of you and your accomplishment.
My husband, Larry, A"H would have had one thing to say to you, so I will instead.

Yasher Koach
You have a lot to be proud of Reply

Anonymous February 18, 2009

Koshar Cop Thank G-d, and thanks to you - what a brave man you are! Reply February 18, 2009 first picture? Reply

Dr. Harry Hamburger Miami, Florida, USA February 17, 2009

Right on Steve After we saw the movie, Defiance, my wife asked me why people hate the Jews so much. I explained that the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, with all the rules for morality and living right according to G-d. Interestingly enough, Sinah also means hate in Hebrew. This lowly mountain was chosen to also let us know that the evil in the world would hate the Jews for bringing light into darkness. Imagine a den of thieves where one decides that stealing is no long permissable? What would the other thieve do....they would hate him for making themselves feel bad about sinning. In a like fashion, others do not like to see a Jew shine a light of morality on them. We were chosen not to have it easy, but rather to bring light into darkenss! Keep the light shining Steve!!! Reply

Jonathan F. Winston-Salem, NC February 17, 2009

Praise the Master for Steve! Praise to the Master that you were able to finally see the LVPD change its policies against facial hair and religious attire. I always thought that we live in a country where each person is considered "equal" under the Constitution. The prohibitions that many organizations and companies have against facial hair is contrary to Scripture. More power to you...Peace! Reply

Lucien Torrington, CT February 17, 2009

Kosher Cop It interesting that in a country where it’s shouted from the mountain tops that there is religious freedom this would and did happen. I am glad to see that you won the righteous fight and hopefully many were educated and inspired along the way! Congratulations on paving the way for many other Jews to come! Reply

Luke Logan, QLD, Australia February 17, 2009

Mazal Tov on Gaining your Rights Back Mazal Tov Steve on gaining your rights back at work. Reply

Lois Jerusalem, Israel February 16, 2009

strength and justice Steve , with your courage and strength you are a perfect candidate for Aliyah
Here you can be a policeman and have a beard and have all the hagim and even pray 3 times a day No problem. Good luck and may you stay safe! Reply

Zusel ben Shlomo NY, USA February 16, 2009

Kosher cop? Let's see..Steve wants to wear a beard for religious reasons even though it is against the regs that he knew when he signed on. Next, a Muslim cab driver refused to take a passenger because the passenger is carrying a bottle of whiskey that he bought in the duty free shop, a clear violation of the terms of his taxi license. Next week another Muslim, a passenger on a plane, refuses to stay seated because it is time for him to prostrate himself and pray to Mecca. In a couple of years, we may see honor killings as a protected religious obligation.

Is there any difference?

I too have limited my work activities because of my religious commitments. I was not available for Saturday meetings or on Jewish holidays among other things. This never became a legal issue due to the type of employment siituation.

As we approach Purim, I wonder what would have been the results if Esther had vowed that she would rather be dead than married to a non Jew.
Its hard to be a Jew. Reply

Roni Las Vegas, NV February 16, 2009

Mazel Tov I followed this in our local news. Also, I called our local ADL office because I believed that they were not showing the support that they should have.
I've worked for several govt. agencies, & felt the "disrespect" pervasive in all.
I'm glad that you fought & won. Reply

Redmon Harper Indianapolis, IN February 16, 2009

Kosher Cop I think this is great for all! How wonderful for you! Reply

Aaron Birmingham, UK February 16, 2009

Congratulations Congratulations Steve, I had to fight an issue in the emergency services when I worked for them as well in the UK, I also recieved flak from friends and collegues alike, but at the end of the day the reason why you fight for these rights is because of respect, and the breadth of subjects amd motivations that "respect" as an issue covers. Also the critics I had, respected me more at the resolution because I had not backed down under pressure, which was one of the strengths of character, which got me the job originaly. I fought for the rights of the public, colleagues and myself, also my faith was the guide to right. Reply

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