Celebrating a mensch

Celebrating a mensch

Lieutenant's departure marks the end of an era

Lt. Michael Falvey lights the shamash with Rabbi Ephraim Simon at a menorah lighting on Dec. 15 at the Pasta Factory in Teaneck, sponsored by Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County.

Last month, I graduated from the 26th Teaneck Community Police Academy. Sadly, the township’s Community Policing Bureau, the division that runs the course, disbanded on Dec. 31 for lack of funds. That date also saw the departure of Police Lt. Michael Falvey, one of the original six officers assigned to that bureau, as well as its commander. Many people feel that Falvey – who served Teaneck since 1984 and will take a post in the private sector – has been a true friend not only of the town but of the Jewish community as well. Falvey also was a contributing writer for the public service segment of The Jewish Standard Website, jstandard.com.

According to Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County in Teaneck, “Lt. Falvey is an amazing person … a true ‘mensch’ in every sense of the word. He is deeply concerned with the welfare of every person, whether young or old, and is always there to extend himself to help others. We honored him several times in our menorah lightings in Teaneck, [having him] light the shamash. That is a very fitting honor for him, being that the shamash gives light to all the other lights.”

Interviewed in his office last month, surrounded by the many plaques and awards for his efforts, as well as police memorabilia, Falvey recalled that the Teaneck Community Policing Bureau began in 1992 as an effort to improve community relations. A black teenager had been shot and killed by a white policeman responding to a call from a resident alleging that a teenager had a gun. Because of the ensuing interracial tension, Falvey said, “officers actually went door to door” in Teaneck with a survey asking what people knew about the police department.

Mike Falvey dances with Elie Katz at Katz’s 1998 wedding. BEHIND THE SCENES

“We wanted to find out what the community needed and what had to be fixed,” he said.

Using the information they gathered, Lt. Paul M. Tiernan (who retired as Teaneck police chief and is now chief of police in Newark, Del.) created the program.

The bureau was modeled after a similar program in Hoboken and the first meeting was held at the home of Pesh and Steve Katz, parents of Teaneck councilman and former mayor Elie Y. Katz. A Junior Police Academy began in 1993, and the Citizens Police Academy took shape 13 years ago.

Katz said in an interview as the bureau wound down, “I have personally known Mike Falvey since I was 15 years old. In addition to being a dedicated professional, I consider him a personal friend.”

In fact, Katz noted, Falvey was a guest at his wedding.

“He is one of the most compassionate, kind, and generous people I have ever met,” Katz continued. “His retirement is not just a great loss for the Teaneck Police and the Jewish community, but for the entire Teaneck community as well.”

In Falvey’s own view, “The community policing bureau gave the public a voice and a place to turn to, addressing quality-of-life, everyday issues including non-emergency matters like neighbor disputes.” He added that Teaneck, with its large Jewish community, was a personal challenge for him from the onset.

“When community policing first started and I was a patrolman, I was assigned to the northwest section of Teaneck, a mostly Jewish area. My relationship [with the Jewish community] started there,” he noted, pointing out that it blossomed over the following years.

Falvey has been invited to numerous kiddushes, weddings, and b’nai mitzvah – and he loves to learn new Jewish phrases. (Two Yiddish words added to his vocabulary during our recent conversation were “ungepatchked” and “shanda,” which he said he “couldn’t wait to try out” on his rabbi friends.)

The lieutenant said he has learned a tremendous amount about the Jewish community. “One Orthodox rabbi told me, ‘You know more about the Hebrew faith than some of my congregants,'” he said.

Elie Katz, left, with Captain Mark Distler, the highest ranking Jewish member of the Teaneck Police; Ricki and former Teaneck Mayor Paul Ostrow; and Mike Falvey, at Katz’s 1998 wedding. BEHIND THE SCENES

Falvey embraced this learning experience wholeheartedly. He said that while the Orthodox community “has been the most open to me” – which he attributes to the size of that community in the township – he interacted as well with Conservative and Reform congregations. His first synagogue visit, he said, was to Rabbi Kenneth Berger at Cong. Beth Sholom.

Former Teaneck Mayor Paul Ostrow recently visited that shul with Falvey to present a program on public safety and health for a group of 25 senior citizens. (Ostrow called it “a very animated and stimulating 90 minutes.”)

“He and I developed a strong friendship during my time on the [Teaneck] Council,” said Ostrow. At the Beth Sholom program, Ostrow – community outreach coordinator for Holy Name Hospital and a former president of the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps – represented Holy Name and Falvey represented the police department.

“Mike has a tremendous sense of humor,” Ostrow said, “and great insight. He is highly intelligent, articulate, and one of the most caring and compassionate officers TPD has produced.”

When Falvey became community policing commander in 2008, he recalled last month, he made it his mission to reach out to the Jewish community.

“I tried to meet every rabbi of every shul in town,” he said, adding that he also read synagogue bulletins. “I gave them all my cell phone number and told them to call anytime they wanted.”

The rabbis did call, letting him know, for example, when problematic events at a synagogue required extra security. Falvey also helped organize an annual tashlich ceremony, during which part of West Englewood Avenue was closed, so that Teaneck Jews could perform the ritual, walking in crowds to the Hackensack River.

While the Jewish community is the largest ethnic group in Teaneck, said Falvey, the Community Policing Bureau works with other minority communities as well, including African Americans, Koreans, and Muslims, particularly Pakistanis.

At present there are no “real problems” in intercommunity relations, he said. He noted, however, that the need “rises and falls,” often depending on international events.

“It can get acrimonious, so we work hard and solicit input” through daily phone calls and e-mails, he said. “That’s the way to do it.”

Falvey said that with the dissolution of the bureau, the town will “have to figure out a different approach to solving problems.” He pointed out that, given budget cuts, programs including DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Training), formerly offered in the public schools, will also be discontinued.

Reflecting on his achievements during the past quarter-century, Falvey said that while the Community Policing Department is most proud of reconnecting with the citizens of Teaneck, “my greatest personal accomplishment is the reconnection with the Jewish community. We now have eyes and ears in the community that we never had before. They tell us about problems we were never aware of.”

He said he will especially miss TeaneckShuls, a listserv he reads every day, and the friends he’s made in the Jewish community, who “embraced me the most.”

Jacqueline Kates, a former mayor of the township who is community relations coordinator at Holy Name Hospital, has known Falvey since 1996, when she was first elected to the Teaneck Council.

“As a resident of Teaneck as well as a former mayor, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Lt. Michael Falvey for his many years of service to our community,” she said. “From the inception of the Teaneck Community Policing Bureau – which brought Teaneck and the Teaneck Police Department beyond mistrust, tragedy, and turmoil to be recognized and lauded as a model community policing department throughout New Jersey and the nation – Michael Falvey has been its heart.”

Kates said she “deeply regrets” that Teaneck is losing both Falvey and the bureau.

“Several weeks ago, I heard Manny Landau, president of the Teaneck Jewish Community Council, comment that he never had to remember which community policing officer was assigned to his neighborhood because he could always turn to Mike Falvey.

“Mike was always ready to assist in resolving neighborhood disputes or to impart essential safety and security information at community-wide meetings, neighborhood groups, or houses of worship,” Kates said. “He even recently went to the Project Ezra dinner because he really admired the work of the organization.”

Said Kates, “Mike Falvey will be remembered in Teaneck because of his continuing efforts to ensure that every Teaneck resident, of every neighborhood and background, could feel confidence and trust in the Teaneck Police Department. He will be remembered because he is truly a mensch.”

Lois Goldrich contributed to this report.

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