Chaplains lend an ear and offer help during synagogue shooting trial
10/27 TrialChaplaincy and Pittsburgh

Chaplains lend an ear and offer help during synagogue shooting trial

In the courthouse and across community, teams of dedicated professionals foster support and spiritual connectivity

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel has worked with chaplains for more than 30 years. Photo by Eliron Shkeidi
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel has worked with chaplains for more than 30 years. Photo by Eliron Shkeidi

As the government continues calling witnesses in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial, one question that won’t be asked is, “Where is God?”

For those seated in the courtroom and monitoring daily updates, however, the case is generating questions of faith. Months before testimony began, representatives of the 10.27 Healing Partnership and JFCS recognized the need for religious helpers beyond Pittsburgh’s cadre of rabbis, spiritual guides and mental health professionals.

The massacre of 11 Jews on Oct. 27, 2018, was an antisemitic attack that prompted “traumatic grief of such a large level,” the 10.27 Healing Partnership’s Maggie Feinstein said.

Two of the community’s rabbis — Jeffrey Myers and Jonathan Perlman — are survivors of the shooting. Other local clergy are also tied to the event or to other people who are closely connected.

Because of the “overlapping relationships,” Feinstein said, reliance on outside chaplains made sense.

The realization was spurred by community needs that arose during the trial of another mass shooter — in Charleston, South Carolina.

After the 2015 Mother Emanuel Church shooting — in which nine African American worshippers were killed and one was injured — chaplains helped the community during the trial, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbi Naomi Kalish told the Chronicle.

“A chaplain doesn’t preach or teach,” she said. “A chaplain listens to people give expression to what they’re actually thinking or feeling. Part of the care that we give is helping people sort that out, then think through that and hopefully heal from some of that pain.”

Rabbi Naomi Kalish. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Naomi Kalish

Feinstein and JFCS’ Dana Gold worked with Kalish — an assistant professor of pastoral education at JTS and the Harold and Carole Wolfe director for the Center for Pastoral Education — to create an “additional layer of support” in Pittsburgh similar to what transpired in Charleston.

The result, Kalish said, is that as the trial continues downtown, a team of trained chaplains will rotate through the federal courthouse.

Doing so is “almost unprecedented,” she said. It happened in Charleston, but including chaplains among other caregivers is a stark reminder to “people who have been affected by the incident, both directly and indirectly, that their experience is important while they go through this process.”

For centuries, chaplains have provided short-term spiritual care. Within the U.S., the profession traces its origins to July 29, 1775.

At that time the Continental Congress authorized “one chaplain for each regiment of the Continental Army, with pay equaling that of a captain,” according to the Army Historical Foundation.

Nearly 80 years passed before Jewish chaplaincy sprung up in New York hospitals. Once it did, Jewish leaders advocated for similar inclusion within the military. Thanks to President Abraham Lincoln, Philadelphia’s Jacob Frankel became the first officially recognized Jewish military chaplain in September 1862, according to Brandeis University’s Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. Within prisons and correctional institutions, Jewish chaplaincy soon followed throughout the latter half of the 19th century.

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute – N.E. Regional Headquarters, has worked with chaplains in local prisons for more than 30 years.

What he’s noticed, he said, is the overwhelming value that chaplains provide: People sometimes “need someone of faith to talk to, or just a word of strength to take them through a horrible crisis.”

Like Kalish and her rotating team, Vogel has assembled a group of chaplains to serve during the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial.

Vogel’s 30-member crew is from the Keystone Disaster Spiritual Care Network. Twenty-three of the chaplains are non-Jews. Seven are Jewish.

Maintaining a diverse pool of religious guides is essential, Vogel explained.

The trial is affecting the Jewish community, but greater Pittsburgh is also “going through this trauma,” he said. It’s imperative that anyone who “feels like talking should have where to call.”

Between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m., chaplains can be reached at 484-482-5272.

Regardless of religion, each chaplain is “trained to listen,” and part of that training includes noticing when “something requires more than chaplaincy,” Vogel said.

The 10.27 Healing Partnership, JFCS and other agencies are providing “beautiful services during this crisis.”

As the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial unfolds, chaplains are helping locals address existential questions. Photo by Beatrice Murch via Flickr

While Kalish and her team offer support at the courthouse, Vogel and his team are reachable by phone. Still, both rabbis would like to increase their group’s presence.

Kalish said she’d like to see chaplains in synagogues, schools and other community organizations.

Vogel said he hopes to create a table near the Squirrel Hill farmer’s market where attendees can speak with a chaplain.

Neither Kalish nor Vogel has any intention of detracting Pittsburghers from local clergy, who often have the benefit of providing guidance based on decades-long relationships.

Chaplaincy is not intended to replace the “spiritual and emotional support” offered by local leaders, Kalish said. Visiting professionals are simply presenting  individuals with a means of addressing short-term crises, including anger toward God and questions about whether “prayer is meaningful.”

“The goal here is that everything should work harmoniously to provide the community with whatever it needs,” Vogel said.

During the past 4½ years, Pittsburghers have had access to numerous pathways for help, expressing pain and connecting with others. Chaplaincy, Feinstein said, is a way to “gain some sense of spiritual connectivity, awe and wonder when hard things are happening.”

The result is tremendous, but it requires the dedication of two parties, Vogel explained.

“When a person comes for help, we have to be able to listen,” he said. “We know we can’t bring back the 11 people who were murdered. Chaplains know we can’t correct this horrific attack on the Jewish people.”

Still, whether it’s on the phone or in person, “a big part of what chaplaincy is about is feeling the pain of another person,” he continued. “It’s about offering support, and offering an ear, so people can move forward.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

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