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Cards on the Table

Rachel Ginsberg

Detective Sergeant Riback is a Las Vegas police officer whose religious renaissance, personal struggles, and public service have made him a warrior for good in the battle of Light against Darkness

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

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Detective Sergeant Steve Riback, aka the “Kosher Cop” fought the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for the right to wear a beard and yarmulke on duty (Photos: Tonya Harvey, Family archives)

D etective Sergeant Steve Riback of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department calls himself the “Kosher Cop,” and it’s not just due to his dietary restrictions or to the years-long court battle he waged against the department to accommodate his First Amendment religious rights to wear a beard and yarmulke on duty. In “Sin City” — the cash and casino capital of the world — being a high-profile Orthodox Jewish cop means giving a moral compass to this city of high-stakes gambling and all the vices that go with it.

“Well, some people say there are more people praying to G-d in this town than in Jerusalem,” Riback says. And that was before the terrifying spray of gunfire three weeks ago that left 58 concert-goers dead and hundreds more injured, relegating the victims’ families and the citizens of this town to find some meaning and consolation in the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

The overtly Orthodox detective sergeant says he wasn’t in a position to have deep religious conversations with other officers after the killings, but there is a certain comfort in knowing there is a high-ranking officer with a strong spiritual core at a time when so many feel lost emotionally and spiritually.

While Riback and the officers in his squad spent the night of the shooting in a hospital identifying and interviewing victims (“In my almost 20 years of police work I have seen the absolute worst of the worst, including death, destruction, chaos, and unimaginable scenarios, but never at this magnitude”), his own religious mentor, Chaplain Rabbi Mendy Harlig, was at Metro police headquarters to give emotional and spiritual support to the first-responders — the officers who initially rushed to the scene under a hail of bullets and drew the shooter’s attention away from the civilians — and to the families of the victims who had gathered there.

It was a closing of circuits: Detective Sergeant Riback — the hardworking, straight-arrow police officer whose religious renaissance, personal struggles, and public service have made him an unintended hero in the battle of Light against Darkness — leading his investigative team in the field, and his own rabbi, the one responsible for introducing him to Torah 14 years before, giving spiritual solace inside the department in the capacity of police department chaplain.

Detective Riback connecting to the younger members of the community

“I try to give them hope,” Rabbi Harlig, who runs the Chabad House of Green Valley, a Vegas suburb, told Mishpacha, “because without that, the rest can be meaningless. I talk to them about the blessings that are around them, because even if they don’t see it in the moment, there is more light than darkness in the world, more good than evil. I cannot give them the reasons for why things happen, why there is suffering or pain. We only have the ability to respond, and we do that through Torah, through tefillah, and through acts of tzedakah and kindness. I believe we chaplains offer a sort of ‘true north’ for them — a steady rock in the storm, and for police on the force, it’s surely a comfort, knowing they aren’t facing tragedy alone.”

Now that Vegas has come back to life, anyone seeking inspiration and the affirmation that real spirituality is still possible among all those flying chips and cash need only meet Steve Riback, another “true north” of moral fortitude who’s set a new standard of religious clarity for his own men on the force.

Detective Riback’s protracted struggle to maintain his Jewish identity in service, and a subsequent District Court ruling that the department’s no-beard and no-hat policy was in violation of his religious rights, made this dedicated warrior for good an unwitting warrior for G-d as well, when his case made headlines while it was being litigated between 2007 and 2009. But that wasn’t the end, or the beginning of the story. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 682)

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