Haifa, Israel - A few months ago, Israeli police planning a sting were hard-pressed to find a convincing small-time dealer who could buy large quantities of drugs without arousing suspicion. In the end, they settled on a novel solution: a Hasidic man who would claim he was buying for students at his yeshiva.
The case ended up netting the arrests of 15 men in the Israeli town of Lod. The arrested will face trial next month on charges of possession and supply of illegal substances. The operation was given the name Ketoret Samim, a double entendre referring both to drugs in modern Hebrew and to a talmudic mixing of incense in ancient Hebrew. The operation’s success was thanks to footage recorded from cameras secreted in the long black coat of Shlomo Treitel, a 34-year-old Hasid from Netanya who is a community police officer.
“My wife didn’t know what I was doing, but when I told her, she said that she knows I’m guided by our rebbe, so I won’t come to any harm,” he told the Forward.
On some 30 occasions, and spending $14,000 altogether, Treitel went to dealers in Lod, notorious for its Arab-controlled drug trading. He bought hard and soft drugs. His story was that the students in his yeshiva were ba’alei teshuvah (secular Jews who have turned to more observant lives), and he had come to the conclusion that he could well cash in on their habits by becoming a small-scale dealer.
“We wanted somebody who would not arouse suspicion of being a police officer,” explained Chanoch Yitzhack of Ramle-Lod police, who masterminded the operation. “On occasion we have used a young woman, another time a taxi driver, and for this we knew people are unlikely to think a Hasid is a police officer.”
Treitel recalls that the dealers would say, “You’re religious, we trust you; we don’t mind giving you business.”
Yitzhack and Treitel’s other superiors deemed his dress a safety device: The theory was that religious clothing inspires a certain respect even from hardened criminals, lessening the chance that they would make physical contact and discover recording devices. The superiors also believed that his religiosity would allow him to get away with being relatively unfamiliar with drug culture; any slip-ups in underground etiquette would be considered a symptom of his devout lifestyle.
“It really proved quite easy,” Treitel said. “The dealers just want money, and they’ll take it from anyone. I just handed over the money and took the drugs.” Though Treitel was unarmed, he “wasn’t scared, because there was backup nearby.”
When intelligence chiefs first approached him to go undercover, Treitel was working as a uniformed community officer in Kiryat Sanz, a Netanya neighbourhood in which 700 families from his sect reside. (He has returned to this role since the sting.) Treitel refused to become involved in the sting until he had checked with his religious mentor, the renowned Sanzer Rebbe Tzvi Elimelech Halberstam.
The rebbe met police chiefs for an in-depth discussion about the plans, and then gave them his blessing. “He said that drugs are a problem for the whole of society, and that it was an important task to take on,” Treitel recalled.
The rebbe’s encouragement reflects a long-standing legacy in the Sanz sect of attributing religious importance to initiatives intended to improve society. The current rebbe’s father and predecessor, Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam, founded Netanya’s Laniado Hospital in the 1970s because of the religious value he attributed to healing. It has been known that when bloodstocks were dangerously low, prayers were actually stopped until enough worshippers came forward to donate and replenish enough for immediate use.
Treitel continued his daily part-time studies in kollel throughout the operation, and kept details from his wife and five children.
He was put through a crash course to teach him about different kinds of drugs and how to talk the talk — not easy for a man who conducts most of his life in Yiddish. He was given phone numbers of dealers and told how to behave when — inevitably — he was short-changed or sold fake drugs.
His superiors held a special ceremony to honor him after the arrests. He spoke, declaring that exchanging his uniformed duties for a career — albeit a made-up one — as a drug dealer had ended up allowing him more time to spend studying Torah.
Now that his community knows of his exploits, he has become something of a celebrity. He said, “My community often feels negatively towards the police, but they know there is a war against drugs that needs to be fought and people are really happy.”