Fire Department Gets Jewish Chaplain

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.
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The Rockville Volunteer Fire Department is in the center of a heavily Jewish area of Maryland, but it was only last month that the 85-year-old fire department got its first Jewish chaplain.

At their monthly meeting in July, the 225 members voted to accept a young Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, Chesky Tenenbaum, as a chaplain. Tenenbaum recently moved to Maryland from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights to become the assistant rabbi at the Chabad of Upper Montgomery County.

Eric Bernard, the president of the volunteer fire department, is Jewish — as is about 30% of the membership — but until now, they have had only an Irish Catholic priest looking after the spiritual needs of members. Bernard said they have had discussions with Reform and Conservative movement rabbis about the position, but the demands of the volunteer chaplain work always ended up being too great.

Bernard has ordered a badge and uniform for Tenenbaum, and soon he will get a beeper so that he can be on call 24 hours a day. Tenenbaum’s first child was just born, but Bernard said he already has been available for members going through tough times.

The Chabad house in Montgomery County was open to the idea of a Jewish chaplain even before Tenenbaum came on board. Last winter, the department decorated the fire truck with a menorah and dreidels, and drove through town with the senior Chabad rabbi on top, wearing a fire helmet and handing out candy — a slight change from the Santa Claus they usually ferry around.

Lenny Chornock, a 48-year-old physician’s assistant who was raised in a Conservative synagogue but has been attending services at the Chabad house for the past few years, discovered Tenenbaum. Chornock has been a volunteer at the Rockville firehouse for 27 years.

Tenenbaum’s membership was supposed to come up for a vote a month earlier, but on the night of that meeting a massive fire broke out. Tenenbaum rode to the fire in Bernard’s truck. As they began rolling out the hoses and moving into position, Bernard said he looked over at Tenenbaum.

“To see the look on his face and his smile,” Bernard said, “I knew he was hooked and he wasn’t going anywhere.”

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