Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt volunteers to give back to first responders
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CommunityNorth Hills rabbi lends an ear

Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt volunteers to give back to first responders

The rabbis work as police chaplain is just another way to show love for community

Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt    (Photo by Tracy Brien Photography)
Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt (Photo by Tracy Brien Photography)

Rabbi Jeremey Weisblatt wanted to find a way to give back to first responders after the attack of Oct. 27, 2018. The Ohav Shalom rabbi reached out to offer support to both the McCandless Police Department and the Special Reaction Team to say thanks and offer support, but he wanted to do more.

Weisblatt’s initial outreach led to conversations with Detective Sergeant Eric Egli about the possibility of volunteering as a chaplain for the police department.

And then the world stopped on March 19, 2020, when COVID-19 forced the closure of, well, everything. Weisblatt thought he might have lost the opportunity to say thanks in a meaningful way to his hometown police department.

Nearly half a year later, Weisblatt raised the idea with Shawn Brokos, the director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, who thought it was a great idea.

“I have contacts at the McCandless Police Department,” Brokos told the Chronicle. “I introduced him to several officers. I know the chief. It was just a natural fit.”

Weisblatt said that Police Chief Ryan Hawk loved the idea. In fact, the rabbi learned that he would not only be the first rabbi to fill the chaplain position, but would also be the department’s first-ever chaplain.

Because of his new nondenominational role, the North Hills rabbi is now part of the International Conference of Police Chaplains.

“My job is basically to be there for the police,” Weisblatt said. “I’m there as a resource, if they need me in a situation or afterward to debrief, to have confidential pastoral conversations.”

Weisblatt said he goes to the department every couple of weeks to talk. Proving his experience as a rabbi isn’t wasted in his new nondenominational role, Weisblatt brings food when he visits, saying he’s learned that “everyone loves food.”

Weisblatt calls his chaplain role “a ministry of presence” that lets the officers know they aren’t alone and demonstrates there are resources available and community is there for them.

The rabbi finds it interesting that a Jewish clergy member is the first chaplain for a police department that is located in an area not thought of as traditionally Jewish. He is looking forward to a deeper relationship with the non-Jewish officers on the force, he said.

“They’ve already asked if they can do some of their training at our synagogue,” Weisblatt said. “We hire them for the High Holy Days as off-duty officers. Now it goes from a transactional relationship to a relationship of values and of community, saying we value that you’re here. We can add a face to the name. I think it adds a very special layer and it’s important to the Jewish community. I think it’s important for us to know our civic leaders and first responders.”

The rabbi, acknowledging there are heightened tensions throughout the country with police, said the support of the community is important for officers who might feel under attack.

“It’s only by these relationships that we can deal with the problems out there,” Weisblatt said. “Yeah, there are some bad apples out there, but the community wants to be in relationship because they put their life on the line every single day.”

His new role, Weisblatt said, achieves two goals: It helps with his desire to give back, and it helps raise awareness of Temple Ohav Shalom beyond the synagogue’s walls — something he was tasked with when he was hired.

Brokos said the chaplain role is vital in police departments, especially for those officers who might not want to reach out to a therapist.

“Chaplains fill a much-needed voice for law enforcement members,” she said, “who may not be comfortable with peer counseling or outside therapy. There is still so much stigma out there, unfortunately. But that is not the case with chaplains.”

For Weisblatt, being a police chaplain helps fulfill part of his rabbinic philosophy.

“Rabbi Joachim Prinz once said, ‘You cannot be a rabbi unless you love people. You do not have to like them but you have to love them.’ That encapsulates my entire rabbinate, this idea of loving people every day. I have tried to find ways to be there for people and community. There are 1,001 ways, but that is one of the guiding core values of my rabbinate.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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