A Passover seder for those who serve

Had a fair legal system been in place in the Egypt of Moses' day, Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum says, the ancient Israelites would never have been placed in bondage there, let alone compelled to flee their homes one fateful night some 3,300 years ago.

After that first Passover, he says, the Jewish people wasted little time creating a justice system of their own, with courts, judges, and an ancient version of police.

Such history helps explain why Tenenbaum, an Orthodox rabbi from Park Heights, created the Jewish Uniformed Services Association of Maryland, a support organization for Jewish members of the military and law enforcement — and why he's so looking forward to leading its first Passover seder when the Jewish holiday commences at sunset on Monday.

"There's a strong connection between the law enforcement and military communities and Passover itself," he says. "On Passover, we celebrate the Jewish people going out of Egypt — and in a larger sense, we celebrate religious freedom. Law enforcement and the military protect our freedom to worship as we choose."

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, the senior rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Maryland, calls Tenenbaum's service to Jewish members of the uniformed services invaluable.

"He realizes that people who put their lives on the line ... have a depth of kinship that is difficult for civilians to appreciate fully," he says. "It's wonderful how he reaches out to connect."

Tenenbaum, a 37-year-old married father of five, will bless the ceremonial wine for an expected 20 guests on Monday evening and reads from a Haggadah, a text that contains instructions for the Passover seder. His role, he says, is "serving those who serve us."

As volunteer chaplain for the Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland Defense Force, among other agencies, he has spent six years offering members nondenominational counseling and other support services.

As founding director and sole full-time employee of the association, he makes himself available in his office in Park Heights for visits from Jewish service members, organizes events for Jewish holidays and visits Jewish police officers, National Guard members or firefighters in their homes.

He has become a familiar figure at the annual Hanukkah celebration at the Inner Harbor, where he has been known to clamber into a Fire Department bucket truck to light the now-traditional 32-foot-tall menorah.

"I don't know when he has the time to do everything he does, but he's always out in the community," says police Detective Jeremy Silbert, who is Jewish. "He travels all across the state. He's been with Governor Hogan and Lieutenant Governor Boyd, with members of the Baltimore City Council, working to help others and to unite people in uniform."

Silbert, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, says it's hard to know how many Jewish men and women work in the 2,500-officer agency.

Tenenbaum says he knows of about 30; Silbert calls the figure low. Both say they continually meet officers they didn't realize were Jewish.

Because uniformed service members tend to work long hours around the clock, Silbert says, many who are Jewish are unable to get to services or even to affiliate with a synagogue — making Tenenbaum's contributions all the more valuable.

As president of the Shomrim Society of Maryland, a fraternal organization for Jewish police officers, Silbert helps sponsor similar outreach programs, often in partnership with Tenenbaum, the society's chaplain.

"I've heard from lots of officers that it's a great feeling to be with people of the same religion during holidays," he says. "I think they get a lot from it."

Silbert says he knows several officers who will attend the seder Monday.

When Tenenbaum was growing up the son of an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn, N.Y., he never imagined a career that centered on working with police, firefighters and soldiers. But his interest in serving men and women in uniform has deep roots.

Among his most vivid childhood memories was hearing the stories of an uncle, Yaakov Goldstein, a U.S. Army chaplain and Lubavitcher rabbi.

Goldstein served in wartime Grenada, Bosnia and Afghanistan, and as the U.S. military's senior chaplain at Ground Zero after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But what most impressed his young nephew were his recollections of the first Gulf War in 1991.

Goldstein was called to Israel, where he worked with the soldiers in charge of the Patriot missiles set up to defend the Jewish state against incoming Scud missiles.

He returned with a few sharp-edged shards of the ordnance they shot down — and a moral to go with them.

"It is written that God protects Israel and never slumbers," he told his then-11-year-old nephew.

"Those were exciting stories," Tenenbaum says. "I was proud of my uncle."

After graduating from Central Yeshiva Lubavitch, a Brooklyn rabbinical school, Tenenbaum moved to Maryland to work as associate rabbi at a synagogue in Gaithersburg — and doubling as a chaplain for both Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville and the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department.

That was when he met a stranger at a Shabbat service — a former member of the Maryland Defense Force, the state military unit that supports the Maryland Army National Guard during emergencies.

The retiree asked whether Tenenbaum would consider becoming a chaplain for the defense force.

Recalling his uncle's military service, he said he would, on one condition: that he could be granted a waiver against the military ban on beards.

Nine months of bureaucratic wrangling later, Tenenbaum became the first member in the seven-decade history of the state defense forces to wear a beard.

Within two years, he'd voluntarily counseled members of the Baltimore and Baltimore County fire departments, led services for members of the Maryland Army National Guard and offered Jewish cultural training classes for city police trainees.

Tenenbaum eventually decided to create a one-stop rabbinical clearinghouse for all the uniformed forces. He raised the funds to establish the Jewish Uniformed Services Association, the first such entity in the United States, in 2013.

In that role, he serves what he estimates to be Maryland's more than 200 Jewish police officers, dozens of Jewish state defense force members and scores of Jewish firefighters.

He says the variety in his work never ends.

At a conference for defense force chaplains, he met a Methodist pastor who had been born to a Jewish family in the Soviet Union, converted to Christianity as an adult, and continued to wrestle with anger toward the Nazis who had killed several of his family members in concentration camps.

Tenenbaum advised the man, Asher Tunik, then of Chestertown, to don a tefillin, a form of headwear that contains parchment scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah and that signals one's connection to God.

"You put on tefillin; you show your heritage," Tenenbaum told him.

Tunik, now a pastor in Newark, Del., says doing so changed him.

"It was was a connection to my grandparents' parents, and to their parents and grandparents, all the way down to Moses and Abraham," he says. "It helped me forgive. And when I forgave, I was healed."

Tenenbaum spent several days offering counsel to police officers in the streets during the rioting that followed Freddie Gray's death two years ago, and he continues to offer cultural training workshops on Judaism.

He uses the classes to apprise police officers of customs they might encounter in the city's Orthodox community — such as negiah, a concept in Jewish law that restricts physical contact with members of the opposite sex.

He has visited the homes of Jewish public safety workers to hang mezuzah, traditional scrolls that contain a prayer that proclaims God's covenant with the Jews and is believed to offer spiritual protection.

Tenenbaum recently kick-started a campaign to raise funds to provide mezuzah for more law enforcement and military members.

"Who better to have this spiritual protection than the people who protect us?" he says.

After the recent wave of threats and vandalism against Jewish institutions in North America, Tenenbaum is guarded about the location of the seder on Monday, but he encourages members of the public to contact him via the association's website, either to get more information or to help support a service member's attendance.

He says he'll retell the story of the Israelites' exodus from slavery, as Jews have done for centuries, and be sure to remind his guests of the connection between the work they do and the state of liberation Passover represents.

"It's a big mitzvah" — an act of charity — "to take on the job of protecting people," he says. "It's the least I can do to give back and be there for them."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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