January 25, 2022

Unsung Heroes of Greater MetroWest

Allison Nagelberg Director of Global Connections NJ

Shortly after 9-11, a small group of Jewish and non-Jewish police officers travelled to Israel, led by volunteers with the Essex County Sherriff’s Office, Mike Safris and Howard Cooperman z”l. Their goal was to learn about counterterrorism techniques from Israeli police officers who deal with threats of terrorism every day. Our Federation’s partnership with Ofakim, Israel was pivotal to building the initial connection, and ultimately lifelong relationships, among these officers. (Pictured here is Howard Cooperman z”l, second from the left; Mike Safris, second from the right; together with Rabbi Mendy Solomon and Israeli police officers before their ride to Washington, D.C.) 

David Bitan, who is now the Deputy Chief of Police in Israel, hails from Ofakim and he sprang into action. The New Jersey officers were brought to an army base in Nachal Oz, near another one of our Federation partners, Kibbutz Erez. They visited the police station in Ofakim and went to the forest for a demonstration of how to prepare for and manage threats and acts of terror. Through this brief but profound experience, a living bridge – true friendship between Americans and Israelis – was born. 

Months later, the police officers from Ofakim travelled to New Jersey, to participate in the Police Unity Tour – a bike-ride with their new friends in New Jersey and so many others, from New York City to Washington DC, to honor fallen US Officers who died in the line of duty the previous year.  At the closing ceremony, in the presence of thousands of police officers from around the country, a special shout-out was given to the officers who came from Ofakim, Israel to support this tremendous effort.  

Mike and Howard have brought hundreds of police officers to Israel over the years, coordinating fundraising and logistics for over 50 people a year and memorializing fallen officers. And they have brought many Israeli police to the U.S. each year, to cycle to D.C. with friends in New Jersey, to honor fallen officers, and to show solidarity. These officers have hosted each other, shared best practices, and perpetuated the living bridge that was created long ago.   

Federation’s Chief Security Officer, Robert Wilson, recalls meeting Safris for the first time in 2017, during a Federation sponsored visit to Newark cemeteries. “Mike, continuing his volunteer work with the Essex County Sherriff’s Office, was at-the-ready to help with security needs.” Wilson later travelled to Israel on one of the police missions. He observes that Mike, in his quiet, unassuming way, has connected Greater MetroWest with leaders in the Israeli military, politics, and law enforcement. “Mike,” he says, “is one of those rare people who is always doing good, even when no one else is watching – a mensch.” 

In addition to his demanding career and tireless work with the Essex County Sherriff’s Office, Mike has been a longstanding volunteer with Global Connections (Federation’s Israel and Overseas arm), working on projects with our partners in Israel. David Bitan, who was instrumental in building the relationship between the NJ and Israeli police, has chaired our steering committee in Ofakim. Recently, our community lost one of our gems, Howard Cooperman, whose dedication changed the lives of so many people. Mike said, “The outpouring of condolences to Howie’s family from the Israel Police was unbelievable and continues to strengthen our living bridge.” 

On the most recent visit of the Police Unity Tour to Israel, with barely a few days’ notice, some 20 families in Ofakim opened their hearts and homes to host this group for Shabbat dinner, making it a highlight of their visit. Mike remarks, “Our trip was amazing, as it always is, with officers from seven states. This year’s group was smaller than in past years – 32 people compared to 50 in prior years – but it was a close group, making friends with many Israelis as well as within our group. I am blessed to be able to be involved with Federation and the Police Unity Tour.” Greater MetroWest is blessed to have such extraordinary people in our community, who sustain our living bridge with Israel every day. 

For more information about the Police Unity Tour, click here. 

To learn more about Federation’s work in Israel and overseas, click here.