A chance meeting between a Black Philadelphia police officer and a white congregant at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am resulted in some weighty conversations, new relationships and the donation of thousands of items of winter clothing to Philadelphia’s homeless.
Officer Robin Robinson of the Philadelphia Police Department and Fred Goldstein, co-vice president of his shul’s social action committee, aren’t exactly sure why it happened.
“For whatever reason, I met Fred, and did the panel … God’s going to use it as my resume,” Robinson said. “To go where, I have no idea. But I do feel as though it’s just not going to be in vain.”
The story begins in October, when Goldstein, 72, a teacher from Northeast Philadelphia, was walking around Center City. He believes he’s open minded and has tried to enact those values with the committee; with co-vice president Sandie Buller, the committee has donated more than 4,000 pounds of canned goods to a local food pantry during the pandemic.
On that afternoon, walking around Chestnut Street with his wife, Julie, Goldstein was forced to confront his biases head-on.
A large group of Black teenagers ran in their direction.
Goldstein didn’t know what to make of it. He’d heard that teens had been assaulting older people and became fearful. He was prepared to strike at one of them.
It didn’t come to that, as the teens ran past the Goldsteins. It turned out they were fleeing a convenience store where they’d shoplifted some candy. Though perfectly safe, Goldstein felt unsettled, and decided that he needed to talk to someone. The following morning, he came upon Robinson.
Robin Robinson, 53, was born in Mt. Airy and raised in New Jersey. A police officer for 15 years, Robinson prides herself on her kindness and level-headedness; she describes herself as a peacemaker.
“I came on a job as a Christian, and I plan on leaving that way,” she said.
The summer had been difficult for Robinson. As the killing of George Floyd sparked protests across the country, Robinson’s days became filled with more invective than usual, and more trash thrown at her and her colleagues than ever before.
Robinson was sitting in her car in Center City when Goldstein got her attention. As he told her the story of his encounter with the Black teens, she interrupted him.
First of all, she said, the best thing Goldstein had done was nothing — trying to confront one of the teens was about the worst option. As Goldstein started to respond, Robinson asked Goldstein if he would have felt the same fear if the group had been white teens. Goldstein thought about it, and said no.
“It dawned on me that this was a piece of my own reality, and something that I needed to think about,” Goldstein said.
The pair talked about race and racism for a while, and Goldstein asked Robinson if she would be interested in sitting on a Zoom panel about racial justice that he was arranging with his synagogue and Abington Presbyterian Church. She accepted.
Robinson’s appearance was no picnic; she was the panel’s only police officer, and the criticism of the police by the other panelists was pointed. But Robinson took it in stride and, for nearly two hours, she answered every question that came her way. Goldstein was impressed with Robinson, and the two kept in touch.
The week before Christmas, Goldstein and Robinson were talking, and Robinson decided to make a shidduch, but not for romance.
If the synagogue’s Social Action Committee could gather some winter clothing together, Robinson told Goldstein, she could distribute it. Working with another congregant, Brad Siever, Goldstein and the committee collected 960 wool caps, 960 pairs of winter gloves and 960 pairs of thermal socks. Working with several other officers, Robinson furnished 12 homeless shelters with the donations, and gave some to the homeless folks she regularly delivered coffee and breakfast to.
Robinson and Goldstein don’t know what the future holds for their partnership. But whatever it yields going forward, it’s already brought warmth to people who desperately needed it.