Not every rabbi uses his pastoral skills to counsel highway accident victims or prevent suicides. Fewer still are called upon to perform CPR or fire a weapon. But for Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis who serve their communities as volunteer police chaplains, such activities are a part of the job.

Affectionately called “Rabbi Cops” by officers and citizens alike, they have the primary responsibility of counseling and assisting both police officers and citizens in times of need.

“When something bad happens, people tend to look to an authoritative figure,” says Rabbi Elie Estrin, co-director of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of Washington and a new inductee to his local police force’s chaplaincy staff.

“Jews look to other Jews,” he explains, “so it’s very important that I’m there for them.”

The conversations chaplains have with victims of a crime – or even the perpetrators – can touch on life and death issues. Sometimes, when a call comes, they must stop whatever they’re doing that moment.

On one of his very first calls 22 years ago, Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein had to go to the employer of a garbage collector who fell from his truck and was trampled by the vehicle’s back tire. As the police chaplain on duty, he had to counsel the man’s coworkers and the waste management firm’s other staffers.

New to the job, Klein was at a loss for words when one of the workers spoke up.

“Aren’t you a rabbi?” the man asked. “Don’t you have words or prayers to say to us in the time of our grief?”

Klein answered that in times of grief, it helps to remember the happy times you shared with a person who passed away.

“More than anything, we in chaplaincy talk about the ministry of presence,” says Klein, co-director of the Tannenbaum Chabad House at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “The very fact that I was there was a comfort for those workers. We represent G‑d in that moment, and ultimately it’s G‑d that heals.”

Still, in retrospect, Klein admits that he was taken aback by the worker’s question.

“Typically, a person’s first reaction to tragedy is to be angry at G‑d,” he explains. “So when you try to push prayer at that moment, you’re causing them more frustration. In Judaism, for instance, we don’t start davening just after the loss of a loved one. We say baruch dayan ha’emet, blessed is the True Judge.

“You have to deal with the anger first.”

On the Job

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, a volunteer police chaplain, receives an award from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, a volunteer police chaplain, receives an award from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

Informal ambassadors of the Jewish community, chaplains assist all people, regardless of their religion.

“As a chaplain, I can integrate within the community as a whole and be a positive presence in the community,” says Klein. “I am the de facto Jewish point person in Evanston. I am on the front lines to educate the community, students and the police department.”

“A lot of progressive police departments, as well as most large- to medium-size police departments, have a clergy component to their services,” says Commander Tom Guenther, a member of the Evanston Police Department’s community strategy team and Klein’s supervisor. “With Rabbi Klein, he’s very active with our officers here, and he also serves as a bridge between the police department and the community.”

Like Klein, Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz values his opportunities as a senior chaplain for three Los Angeles law enforcement agencies to interact with both Jews and non-Jews. He spends most of his time serving as director of the anti-missionary organization Jews for Judaism and lecturing at Jewish institutions across the United States, and looks to chaplaincy as a way to interact with his local community.

“In my usual work, I don’t have many opportunities to reach out to non-Jewish people, to introduce them to values that the Torah has for them,” says Kravitz, a graduate of the Lubavitch-run Rabbinical College of America and a 16-year veteran of police chaplaincy.

Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, co-director of the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life serving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, joined the university’s Emergency Support Team to fill a void. For the past two-and-a-half years, he’s been the only Jewish member of the chaplaincy group.

“My entire goal is to make this world a better place,” says Tiechtel. “Helping those who help others is a tremendously important mitzvah.”

Klein has officiated at circumcisions for Jewish officers’ children, their bar mitzvahs, even officers’ weddings. Some come to pray at services between calls.

Just as important, Klein’s position allowed him to push for a change in policy regarding how local law enforcement handles dead bodies. Klein managed to get the police department to be quicker about releasing Jewish bodies so that they could be buried as soon as possible, in accordance with Jewish law.

Tiechtel calls being a chaplain a true act of service.

“People know where to turn when they need a Jewish resource,” he says. “Working in the time of need or distress is the ultimate kindness. There’s no better way than that.”