Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum has always felt a great sense of responsibility and gratitude to those who put their lives on the line to protect and serve others.
That selfless attitude in part sparked the inspiration behind the formation of the Jewish Uniformed Service Association of Maryland, which Tenenbaum started five years ago. JUSA started as a support mechanism for Jews serving in the military, police, fire and other public safety capacities but has since evolved to serve the needs of all uniformed men and women.
Community members, law enforcement officers and elected officials came together on Wednesday at Baltimore’s Fifth Regiment Armory, appropriately, to honor Tenenbaum for all that his organization has accomplished since its founding.
For Tenenbaum, grinning ear-to-ear, the moment fulfilled a reality of the dream he had envisioned as a child growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Wow,” a jubilant Tenenbaum exclaimed looking out to the audience that included Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and master of ceremonies Richard Scher, among other dignitaries. “Looking around the room, I am truly humbled.”
The evening also honored a fallen police officer and firefighter.
If there is anyone who embodies JUSA’s slogan of “serving those who us serve us,” it’s Tenenbaum, without a doubt.
Through JUSA, Tenenbaum estimates he provides outreach and services — from religious and spiritual counseling to organizing meetings and events — to as many as 300 individuals per year, a noteworthy feat that has not been lost on the law enforcement community.
Tenenbaum, 38, of Upper Park Heights always makes himself accessible at a moment’s notice. Whether a service member needs assistance attaching a mezuzah to a door, needs a visit in a hospital or needs funeral arrangements made for a loved one, Tenenbaum is there.
“For everything they do for us and the community, this is a way that I try to give back to them,” Tenenbaum said.
In a recorded video message that introduced Tenenabum, retired detective Sgt. Gary Yamin of the Baltimore Police Department said Tenenbaum has offered him more than just a shoulder to lean on.
Shortly before his uncle died in hospice care this spring, Yamin asked Tenenbaum to perform a blessing and prayer, and without hesitation, the rabbi rushed over to carry out that wish. Just 10 days later, Yamin again contacted Tenenbaum, this time to officiate the funeral of his father — his uncle’s brother — after he died and to cope with the fallout.
“All through the weeks, even up to today, Rabbi Tenenbaum keeps in contact with me and follows up,” Yamin said. “We’ve had several sessions, sometimes in which I have reached out to him to help with the grieving of my dad and my uncle. I can’t imagine not having the support that we’ve had [from Tenenbaum].”
Had it not been for people like the late Martin Hershkowitz and retired Army Colonel Erwin Burtnick, Tenenbaum’s interaction with th Yamin family and countless others may never have come to fruition.
About 10 years ago, Tenenbaum was serving as a chaplain at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville, Md. While conducting a pre-Shabbos service with Jewish patients, Tenenbaum met Hershkowitz, who was retired military. The two struck up a conversation about Tenenbaum’s chaplaincy, and one month later, Hershkowitz called Tenenbaum asking if he’d like to become chaplain for the Maryland Defense Force.
“I said, ‘Interesting, but what about my beard?’” Tenenbaum said to the laughter of the crowd.
After nine months, Tenenbaum was granted a special exemption to sport a beard and became the first Chasidic chaplain to have facial hair in any American state defense force.
“This was my first step to founding JUSA,” Tenenbaum said.
In the years that have followed, Tenenbaum said, he has turned to Burtnick, commander of the Department of Maryland Jewish War Veterans USA, for guidance in how to assist veterans. This was not more evident, Tenenbaum shared, than when he received a frantic phone call from a military veteran who was having trouble with his benefits.
“Not knowing where to turn, I emailed Col. Burtnick,” Tenenbaum said. “It was 10:30 p.m. Just five minutes later, he responded that he was available to talk. He guided me with how to guide the veteran, and our phone call lasted past midnight.”
For his efforts with JUSA, Burtnick was honored with the military community service award. Two Jewish public servants who died in the line of duty, Ira Weiner of the Baltimore Police Department and Gene Kirchner Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company, were honored with awards for making the ultimate sacrifice.
Members of the audience, clutching their hands and fighting back tears at times in an emotion-filled event, said they came away with great admiration for Tenenbaum and JUSA.
Rutherford said “all Marylanders owe a tremendous debt” to those who willingly place themselves in dangerous situations so that communities can remain safe.
“In our times of need, these heroes answer the call,” Rutherford said. “When many will run from danger and adversity, they’re running toward it.”
Betsy Gardner, neighborhood liaison for the 5th and 6th Baltimore City Council districts and citywide Jewish community liaison for the council presient’s office, said Tenenbaum has been instrumental in assisting Baltimore police officers with the cultural differences in the Orthodox community.
“I consider Rabbi Tenenbaum and his wife, Chani, brother and sister,” said Gardner, who presented Tenenbaum with a citation of honor and recognition from the City Council. “Thank God we have them living amongst us now.”
Devoral Exline, who served in the Navy from 1985 to 2010 and is a Wounded Warrior Project alumni member, said she feels JUSA exudes a strong sense of camaraderie. She said that is a testament to Tenenbaum’s giving spirit.
“The more I talked with Rabbi Tenenbaum, the more I amazed I was at everything he has done, especially after seeing what I saw tonight,” said Exline, who is Jewish.
In all her years of service, the Catonsville resident said she had never come across an organization like JUSA. Her hope, she added, is that JUSA inspires others to start similar efforts all around the country, especially in her home state of California.
“This really is amazing. It’s hard to put into words. What JUSA is doing is very unusual from my experience,” she said.
Jaclyn Young, 61, of Catonsville agreed. Young, who is Catholic, said she is delighted with all the “hard work, sacrifice and dedication” Tenenbaum and his organization have demonstrated.
“The Jewish men and women who put on a uniform, they aren’t just supporting other Jews, they’re supporting all of us,” Young said. “What [JUSA] does is a wonderful, wonderful thing that I hope we can see more of what they are doing all over. In times like this, we really need it.”
Receiving countless thank-yous for the work he does is more than enough satisfaction for Tenenbaum, who simply views what he does as a mitzvah.
“Putting your life on the line every day and sacrificing for others, that’s one of the greatest mitzvahs,” Tenenbaum said.
For more information about the Jewish Uniformed Service Association of Maryland, visit jewishusamd.org.