Cop Honored for Rescuing Rabbi

by Paul Bass | March 1, 2006 7:36 AM | | Comments (4)

It was late on a winter Friday night. Rabbi Shmully Hecht (pictured above) was walking home with two of his young children. They passed the Palace on College Street when they encountered two drunks. “Hitler should have finished you off!” one taunted. “Come here,” Hecht responded, “and say that to my face.” Luckily for Hecht, Sgt. Dennis Burgh (below) happened to be driving by.

In a ceremony at the New Haven Hotel Tuesday night, the Connecticut Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) honored Burgh for the action he took that night.

Rabbi Hecht is used to taunts like the one he heard that night. That doesn’t stop him from walking through downtown streets at night. It doesn’t stop him from including his boys in Friday night festivities at Crown Street’s Chai Society (a Jewish club he founded and runs) then walking home to East Rock. Hecht usually responds to such threats with resolve. The bigots usually walk away or apologize.

But this winter night was different. The two men didn’t back down.

“They came up and they were about to hit my kids,” Hecht recalled.

Sgt. Burgh, who joined the force in 1974, was driving down College Street. He usually works the front desk at the police station; he had an extra-duty job that night at Alchemy in the trouble-prone bar district. He was passing the Palace in his car when he saw the confrontation.

He stopped the car, hopped out, and, as he put it the other day, “took them [the two men] out of commission. They were pretty big guys, too. It’s something you just act on.”

Hecht said he believes Burgh saved his life.

“I was glad I was there to help out the rabbi and his family,” Burgh said. “It’s an unfortunate thing they had to go through that. It was ugly.”

Since then, Hecht said, he has encountered other taunts on his nighttime strolls. Twice in the last week, as a matter of fact.

He was walking by Yale’s Old Campus on College Street last Friday night around 11:30, again coming home with two of his sons (aged 7 and 5) from a Chai Sabbath evening event. An apparently drunken young man called out, “You dirty Jews.”

“I turned around to him and said, ‘Come right up here and say that to my face,’” Hecht recalled. “You’ll get arrested for a hate crime.”

Instead, the young man, who looked around 20, ran into the Old Campus, according to Hecht. You need a key to get in, which makes Hecht think the man was a student or a friend of a student. He said two Yale cops saw the incident and left it alone. “Oh, he’s drunk,” one cop said, according to Hecht.

Near midnight on Saturday, a “big guy” looking to be in his late 30s or early 40s called out “Fucking Jews!” to Hecht and a student friend as they left a Chai event on Crown. The man was walking to Louis’ Lunch.

“I said, ‘Come here and say it to my face. You better say you’re sorry,’” Hecht recalled. The man did apologize.

It’s important to confront people when they make bigoted comments, said Hecht, who’s 31 and who has a personal stake in downtown’s spiritual and real-estate fortunes. “I don’t want them to think they can walk away and get away with it,” he said. “They’re bigots. Once you show them you’re not afraid of them, they chicken out.”

Most of the time. At other times, it’s good to see a cop in the neighborhood.

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Posted by: Chris DePino | March 1, 2006 9:28 AM

This article is really about bravery. A Rabbi who bravely stands for what he believes in and a police officer sworn to protect and defend that right against a threat by others. I am fortunate. I know both Rabbi Hecht and Sargeant Burgh. Both are fine people and a true reflection of the good that this community has to offer. I commend them both. New Haven is lucky to have them.

Posted by: Chris Sawyer | March 1, 2006 1:48 PM

Like Chris said, this article champions men like officer Burgh who came to Rabbi Hecht's aid. However, it also makes me wonder why Yale police didn't follow Burgh's lead and act more forcefully to apprehend the most recent perpetrator of anti-semitic remarks against Rabbi Hecht. As a long-time New Haven resident, the Yale police force has a reputation for protecting students and serving as a buffer for them when they get into trouble. Why should Yalies go unpunished for such heinous acts? This most recent episode does nothing to alter my (and most New Haveners) image of Yalies as spoiled brats who can get away with almost murder. The Yale police should take a hint from New Haven's finest like Sgt. Burgh!

Posted by: M | March 8, 2006 10:38 AM

This may sound naive, but I can never understand why people make antisemitic remarks. I like to think that New Haven will be a model city of tolerance where we can all stroll down the street together with our baby strollers, hold hands, or whatever and just be friendly and cool with oneanother.
But just when you feel that prejudice has been conquered, you get another person who sincerely believes that the Protocals of Elders of Zion is "true" and not Czarist Russian/Nazi fiction. Or some person will insist on some Jim Crow type fiction. It's frustrating.

Posted by: M | March 8, 2006 10:56 AM

I agree with the above comments. People like Rabbi Hecht give other people courage with a no nonsense approach to harrassment. I have had incidents of harassment, but mostly just irritating. One time I was standing at (X) coffee bar, and a bunch of drunk college boys were making fun of my local accent. Yale needs to drop the golden boy stuff and teach these kids some awareness and humanity.

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