In his professional career, Rabbi Moshe Levin has worn many hats — but never one like this.
Upon being sworn in as the San Francisco Police Department’s newest chaplain, the spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid was handed a new yarmulke — blue, of course — emblazoned with the distinctive SFPD Oro en paz, fierro en guerra (“golden in peace, iron in war”) eagle patch. “Police” is the only English word on the patch.
“Of course I presented him with the official yarmulke,” said a smiling Morris Tabak, deputy police chief. Tabak was chief for the day on Sept. 26 while Chief Heather Fong was out of town. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, it was the first time a Jewish S.F. police chief has sworn in a Jewish chaplain.
It was also the first time the department printed a SFPD badge with a Star of David.
Levin, closing in on his sixth year at Ner Tamid, is not a newcomer to the chaplaincy world. He spent 18 years as a chaplain with the Los Angeles and San Diego police departments and, before that, served as a military chaplain in Vietnam during the war.
In Los Angeles, he even once served as a makeshift hostage negotiator with a man who took a motel full of guests hostage in a botched robbery. Despite the best efforts of Levin and a police psychologist, the hostage-taker refused to give himself up and was eventually killed by a police sharpshooter.
In San Francisco, that kind of work probably won’t fall to Levin, one of eight San Francisco police chaplains. Sgt. Mary Dunnigan, who runs the police behavioral science unit that oversees the chaplains, explains that whenever an officer is in the hospital, she “dials for dollars,” hoping to land a chaplain of any religious stripe to visit the wounded man or woman.
“When they show up in uniform, it really doesn’t matter what faith they are,” she said. “When a chaplain shows up, officers don’t say ‘Are you Jewish or Catholic?'”
In Levin’s case, through the yarmulke may give it away.
The chaplains are part of a larger unit specializing in stress reduction, alcohol or drug dependency and counseling. Frequently, Dunnigan said, officers prefer to speak with a chaplain instead of a counselor because the conversation remains confidential.
Levin replaces retiring Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, who served for nearly a decade. At Levin’s induction ceremony, Tabak put through a call to a handful of fellow Jewish cops, who showed up in solidarity.
“I’m not especially religious but it’s nice to see how my culture is being represented,” said Lt. Simon Silverman.
“We used to be a pretty traditional department,” he added. “We’re not any more. It’s a mixed group, and I’d say it’s our greatest strength.”