Making a difference

Making a difference

Most if not all of you have heard the term chaplain. The spelling and meaning of the word is very different than that of a brilliant comic from decades ago: Charlie Chaplin.

The military has commissioned chaplains for centuries, and so have police and fire departments; first-responder units are using chaplains now as well.

So, what exactly is a chaplain, what does a chaplain do, and how does he or she do it?

Chaplains are supposed to provide support and to be a comforting presence to anyone regardless of sex, age, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disabilities, or socioeconomic status, and to do so in a secular manner no matter their religious beliefs.

Police chaplains provide spiritual support and encouragement to law enforcement officers, agency employees, and their families, but also provide comfort, and assistance to the community in cases of crises. A chaplain must be compassionate, of course, but his or her real role, the thing that is most important, is that he or she be there, just be present, and there are times that I’m sure even the police want to be somewhere else.

Many police departments have instituted ride-alongs, where the chaplains ride in the police car with the police officers during a shift. But every chaplain who is on call goes with police officers to accidents, to death scenes, to homes with calls about domestic violence, and pretty much anywhere else officers think there’s a need.

I guess that by now you realize that I am a police chaplain. I was appointed and sworn in as a chaplain for the Livingston police department, and for the New Jersey Department of Corrections for their officers and civilian staff. (The inmates have paid clergy.)

Doubling, tripling, or cutting my pay in half wouldn’t matter, as there is no pay — at least, not in money. The pay is in the service we do. It’s being there to ease someone’s pain. No words must be spoken; your presence alone makes it work.

I get that exact feeling both at Congregation B’nai Israel, where I’ve served on the pulpit for more than a quarter century, and in my life off the pulpit. With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about a line from the 23rd psalm; “…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

We all walk through that valley from the moment we’re born, but police officers, firefighters, prison security guards, military personnel and others experience that walk on a very different level. Their spouses, their partners, their children, their parents, and their siblings take that walk with them every day as well.

How many of you have stopped a police officer just to say thank you, or to let them know that you understand that they are putting their lives on the line every day? Oh sure, when we get pulled over our attitudes triple. What did I do (when we know exactly what we did)? Why are you pulling me over? Forget it, because if the sh*t ever hits the fan, you won’t be asking why, you’ll be screaming help, and they will be there.

Most of us have no real idea of what police officers go through every day. The stress that they deal with and the work that they do leads to an incredible divorce rate and a higher-than-average suicide rate. Many police officers, just like many civilians, won’t reach out for help.

If the mere presence of a chaplain in the police station, or on a quiet ride in a patrol car, shows the officers that there are people out there who care, that in and of itself makes the program work. I tell the officers and their families that they are in my prayers every day. I pray that their days are filled with smiles, with peace, and with safety.

To end on a lighter note, my cousin Jimmy, who knows me very well (his father was a renowned cantor in the Boston area) looked at a picture of me in the Livingston Police Department uniform, and a huge smile crossed his face.

He started to laugh: “Knowing how you lived your life, and the things that you did, I don’t know what I think is funnier,” he said. “The fact that you became a rabbi, or that you wear the uniform of a police officer, and work with law enforcement!”

Lives change, and I can tell you, unequivocally, that my becoming a cantor, an ordained rabbi, and sworn in as a chaplain has more than changed my life.

I believe with all my heart that what we do makes a real difference.

Cantor/Rabbi Lenny Mandel, who left the wilds of Manhattan almost 50 years ago and lives in West Orange, has been the hazan at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson for the past quarter century. He is a chaplain for the Livingston Police Department, the New Jersey Department of Corrections, and the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation.

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