NYPD interfaith Holy Land tour, a different kind of New York religion story
There used to be a television series about the New York Police Department that ended with the voiced-over sign-off: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” We’ve been hearing mostly about only one of the religion stories in New York these days, the controversy surrounding the planned Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center site. On a recent visit to New York, I had the pleasure of hearing a very different type of New York story when I interviewed the NYPD officers who led the unusual interfaith tour of the Holy Land described in my feature here.
(Photo: From left – Miller, Nasser, Wein and Reilly at interfaith center in Israel)
I met Sgt. Brian Reilly, Detective Ahmed Nasser and Detective Sam Miller at Reilly’s Lower East Side office and spoke to Detective Larry Wein by phone because he was out investigating a case. The Lower East Side has traditionally been so diverse that it’s almost tailor-made for the kind of interfaith cooperation they highlighted with this trip. “I’ve worked here in the Lower East Side and East Village for 29 years and been exposed to people from all over the world,” said Miller, who is Jewish. “It’s just a melting pot of every race, religion and ethnicity.” The NYPD reflects the city’s diversity, he said: “This is the most diversified police department in the world. I’m an investigator. When we need a translator, I don’t have to go outside. We have members of the service who can speak any language in the world.”
Reilly is commanding officer of the NYPD chaplains’ unit (4 Catholics, 2 Protestants, 1 Jewish and 1 Muslim) but these men are not chaplains themselves. Instead, they are leaders in faith-based fraternal organizations for NYPD officers. The Holy Land tour was a completely private initiative. “We weren’t working on somebody’s suggestion,” explained Reilly, a Roman Catholic. “We paid it all ourselves. There was a price for the tour and people decided to go or not. We’re fraternal organizations and we decide how to run our yearly trip.”
(Photo: From left – Miller, Nasser and Reilly at NYPD chaplains’ unit office)
After Christians joined the annual Jewish trip to Israel that Miller organized in recent years, the expansion of the group to include Muslim officers was the new element this year. Nasser, the head of the Muslim Officers Society, was enthusiastic despite the fact he and two Palestinian-born officers were held up by Israeli security for two hours on arrival. “It was a very wonderful experience to go there and experience for yourself, to see the Holy Land and be able to share such time with friends,” he said. “It gave me a different way of looking at that region. We focused on what’s common among our members. We’re all brothers in uniform. We wanted to go there and see what’s common in our faiths.”
Nasser said the trip gave rise to conversations about Islam with his non-Muslim colleagues. “When I mentioned some things, like we in Islam say all prophets are the same from Adam to Mohammad, some people looked and said — really? When I said Mary has a chapter for herself in the Koran and Jesus has a chapter for himself, people started to think — oh wow. So they see we have a lot of things in common.”
Nasser also explained to them his take on religion and politics in the Middle East: “People often blame religion but I think it’s more politics than religion. I’m a Muslim and speak Arabic. But I can’t go to Saudi Arabia without a visa because I’m not a Saudi. Politics plays a big role but people like to play with religion and say it’s the cause of everything.”
(Photo: Miller (L) and Reilly in Egypt, wearing the trip shirt with insignia of the three fraternal organizations and the NYPD)
Wein said the fact the trip went so well was a good omen for next year. “A lot of people didn’t know what to expect (this year). I bet if we do it again next year, we’ll have a lot more,” he said. In fact, the officers spoke so much about the fun they’d had on the trip that it was initially a bit hard to get an answer to one of my main questions. I thought readers might like a few concrete examples of the main lessons the travelers brought back to apply to their work in New York.
Whenever I asked, though, what I got was another story about something that happened on the trip. It didn’t take long before I saw my question was misdirected. The lesson was right there in the way they did things together, looked beyond differences and tried to understand each other’s faith and traditions. The practical applications will flow from that, case by case.
(Photo: At the Western Wall, with the walkway to the area called al-Haram al-Sharif by Muslims and and the Temple Mount by Jews)
“Just traveling together, we cared about each others’ feelings in whatever we were going to do. You have to be that way as a cop,” Miller said. Reilly said he felt “religiously in tune” with others thanks to the trips. “To be religiously in tune is to be part of the community, because for a lot of people their faith dictates how they live. The more you experience, the better you do.” Nasser said: “There’s always more to learn and I learned a lot on this trip. The idea is to keep your mind open. Give it a chance and learn.”
Miller, who began the annual trips for the Shomrim Society in 2003 and has organized them as they expanded to bring people of other faiths to Israel, then pitched in with another story about Reilly’s first visit to Jerusalem. “When we were at the Western Wall, out of nowhere somebody called out Sgt. Reilly! Sgt. Reilly!” It was a Hasidic Jew from Borough Park in Brooklyn, where Reilly used to work. “Before visiting the Wall, I’d been told to be really quiet, this was a holy place for Jews, very solemn, so I said OK, I understand,” Reilly laughed. “And then out of the crowd comes, ‘Is that Sgt. Reilly from Borough Park? What are you doing here? I can’t believe it you’re here in Jerusalem’. This was 2005 and I was a sergeant in Borough Park back in the 1990s but they remembered me. We were at the Western Wall, in uniform to take some photographs, and they yelled out across the crowd. They came over and we hugged and had a good laugh.”