Fishel Litzman was eager to earn his police badge; the thirty-eight-year-old Hasid from Monsey had been waiting his entire life to marry Orthodox Jewish values to public service. But just as he was preparing to complete the New York City Police Academy, things got hairy.
Litzman, 38, was dismissed from the NYPD on Thursday because he refused to trim his facial hair and comply with NYPD regulations. Keeping one’s beard nice and trim is a required among all NYPD officers, but the devout Orthodox was defiant. He would do the requisite academic work—Litzman earned test grades 99, 100 and 96, while at the police academy—but compromising his faith and shaving his whiskers was not an option.
“Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard,” Leviticus 19:27 commands.
‘I will not waver’
The conflict between the Hasid and the NYPD over his beard had apparently been brewing for several months; the Daily News, which broke the story, said Litzman had received complaints from instructors as early as January about his failure to “maintain personal appearance.”
The NYPD is especially strict about its recruits’ adherence to facial hair requirements; according to sources close to the department, covert operations sometimes oblige officers to wear masks—coverings that can only contain heads with reasonable amounts of fuzz. That amount has been set at one millimeter, and the hair must also be kept nice and trim.
More than two dozen Orthodox officers currently work for the force, wear their beards, and comply with the NYPD’s rules. But Litzman’s hair was too wild, and the Hasidic man was adamant that even the slightest trims would force him to violate his religion.
“As an Orthodox Chasidic Jew, it is absolutely forbidden in my religious beliefs to cut or trim my beard in any way,” he reportedly wrote in a memo to the NYPD on March 18. “I am being disciplined [by my instructors] only because I maintain my religious beliefs and observances.”
For the Chasid, adhering to the Torah while faithfully serving the city are not mutually exclusive aims.
“I will not waver in my firm belief that I can be a successful member of the NYPD and an Orthodox Chasidic Jew at the same time,” he also wrote in the aforementioned memo. “I believe that my love of G-d and my love of the NYPD can coexist.”
‘I always wanted to be a police officer’
In response to allegations of religious discrimination in Litzman’s case, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said the former paramedic had been fully informed about the department’s facial hair guidelines when he signed up for the academy. Litzman’s lawyer— famed D.C. attorney Nathan Lewin— has protested that, on the contrary, it was the NYPD was first cognizant of how things would end up.
“They knew from when he took the exam and applied that he would not trim his beard,” Lewin explained, referring to NYPD officials. “[Litzman] said from the outset it was a matter of religious observance. He never made a secret of it.”
The Monsey Chasid, who claims he wasn’t even given reason for his dismissal when he was thrown out of the police academy last Friday, lamented that his lifelong dream had died so abruptly.
“I always wanted to be a police officer,” the father of five told the Daily News. “This was unfortunate. … I’m a newly minted civilian.”
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer issued a statement last Saturday saying he was “deeply troubled” by the NYPD’s decision to release Litzman from its program.
“While the NYPD can exercise control over the personal appearance of its force in order to ensure that all officers are capable of performing their duties,” Stringer said, “they are also required to make a reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs.”
Stringer called on NYPD police commissioner Raymond Kelly to reevaluate the Academy’s decision, but the police chief demurred.
“I am not going to comment on it because it’s obviously going to involve litigation,” Kelly said, the Daily News reported. “I would simply say that (communication on the issue) has been ongoing for quite a while — since actually before this gentleman came into the Police Department.”
“So there’s been a lot of notice, a lot of interaction, and I’m not going to say anything more about it because it will involve litigation,” the commissioner added.