The Jewish community of Queens has a myriad of volunteer organizations that add to the betterment of our lives and those of our neighbors. Despite his untimely passing, the work of chaplaincy was beautifully showcased by the sincere devotion of Rabbi David Keehn z”l. Throughout the blocks of Queens there are ample chaplains – both men and women – ready, willing, and able to step up to help friends, neighbors, and brethren. The Queens Jewish Link took some time to speak with Rabbi Chaplain Mendy Coën, Director-General at the United States Chaplain Corps (USCC), and some of his team to get a better grasp of their outreach efforts to access and help others.
Rabbi Coën has a decade and a half of experience as a chaplain in the New York healthcare hospital system, often aiding seniors at rehabilitation centers and nursing homes. Today, he leads over 500 chaplains in the Jewish division of the USCC. “Our chaplains are trained to diffuse pain and ease tension by means of language, psychology, and emotional support.”
Chaplain Eli Taub, a Kew Gardens Hills resident, has developed the tools to provide emotional support and spiritual care during his years in chaplaincy. Taub is the head liaison for USCC discussions with the NYPD and has built as lasting relationship with their chief chaplain Rabbi Alvin Kass. “The USCC is in talks with Deputy Commissioner Robert Ganley to jointly work on a chaplaincy program. Such a program will give officers yet another outlet for assistance if needed,” said Taub. “USCC works with our Queens communities when locals reach out for aid. At the family’s request, we were on hand when a yeshivah college student was attacked near Landers College for Men. We worked in unison with Captain Kevin Chan of the 107th police precinct and successfully arranged for the community affairs officers to speak with the student body and administration. When there was an uptick of drug issues and robberies in the South Ozone Park area, covered by the 106th precinct, USCC met with officers and merchants to alleviate the matter.” Captain Chan also attended a USCC graduation event held at the Young Israel of Woodmere this past week.
Another noted chaplain is Rabbi Yisroel Majeski, a dynamic Los-Angeles-based lecturer, educator, and rav of Kehilas Lev Simcha, and Rosh Kollel of the Valley Night Kollel. Rabbi Coën left an indelible mark on Rabbi Majeski at the Chevrah Pesach program, where the two conversed about the delicate work of a passioned chaplain. “I took the course right after Pesach, and as they say the rest is history,” noted Rabbi Majeski to the Queens Jewish Link. Chaplains are known to waste no time jumping into action and do what is necessary to accomplish a task.
A recent Shabbos spent at the Fort Bragg Army Base in North Carolina was awe-inspiring for the chaplains of the USCC, as its 15 miles of infrastructure is home to 80,000 servicemembers and equipped with its own malls and amenities. “It was something unique to meet our military and having a chance to thank them personally for their service,” said Rabbi Majeski. “The highlight was meeting Jewish soldiers who are so thirsty to connect to their roots, especially in that environment.” The Shabbos experience was chaired by Fort Bragg Chaplain Captain Dovid Egert, who provided a private tour of the base and included a briefing by the explosives team on how engineers silently diffuse chemical devices. During Kabalos Shabbos, a briefing of difficulties and challenges faced was delivered by Fort Bragg Garrison Commander Colonel Scott Pence. The weekend was catered by Chaim Rick Richter, who transported his kitchen and cuisine from Brooklyn.
When Champlain Towers South collapsed in Surfside, Florida, USCC had a strong presence on the ground, and their work with the families of victims continues today. The USCC was on scene for eight consecutive weeks and gained recognition from Governor Ron DeSantis, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, and Town of Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett. A challenge coin was distributed by the USCC to all those who assisted, from the members of law enforcement to the fire department, clergy members, and chaplains.
Chaplain Elisa Mermelstein is an involved Kew Gardens Hills resident who spent significant time at the site. “The tragedy gave me an immediate opportunity to put my chaplain skills to work,” explained Mrs. Mermelstein as she prepared to take off on a flight to a Project Inspire women’s retreat in Austin, Texas. “I spent significant time working with the families of victims and offering a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on.” Mrs. Mermelstein’s words turned to action, as she would be meeting up with Martin, a brother of one of the victims, in Texas. His last day of the men’s retreat coincided with the first day of the women’s retreat. “We established a connection and speak often.” Martin was encouraged by Rabbi Coën to become a chaplain himself in an effort to direct his pain into giving to others. Martin went on to forge a beautiful relationship with Rabbi Majeski at the Fort Bragg weekend. “Knowing that Rabbi Majeski would be a trip leader on a Jinspire Men’s Retreat in Austin, I encouraged Martin to attend, in hopes that he would be inspired by the wonderful leaders to further connect to his Jewish roots. Spending three days with total strangers, Martin got a taste of what it means to be a Jew – that each one of us cares about and is responsible for our brothers and that Hashem is good and just, even if we don’t understand,” Rabbi Coën said.
“The day was emotional, especially going down to the actual site,” expressed Rabbi Majeski, who flew down to assist at Surfside. “It was amazing to partake in the work of a chaplain and experience what we were doing there.” Rabbi Majeski made note of one inspiring memory. “I witnessed the extreme chesed of Rabbi Coën as he took a boy shopping. This child had lost all his belongings when the building went down.” Rabbi Majeski, like many of his colleagues, met an enormous number of people and for the most part did the most vital work of a chaplain - spend time with talking with those most affected. “I keep up on some of these conversations today,” noted the rav.
So, what brought an active educator with a seemingly full schedule into the world of chaplaincy? Rabbi Majeski points to his ability to inspire as the catalyst for his involvement. “I want to be able to have the opportunity to reach and visit people in hospitals and jails. Being a chaplain enables me to access more Yidden. In my position as a community rav, I have found many ways to better our community since I have become a chaplain.” Chaplain Mermelstein first met Rabbi Coën in person at Surfside and speaks of his care, earnest dedication, and the fact that he does not cut corners.
Queens also has the privilege to have Chaplain Ben Kaminetsky as a member of the USCC. The Kaminetsky and Coën families share a deep history that continues to flourish through chaplaincy. Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein and Mr. Yanky Elefant of Ohr Naava in Brooklyn, along with Avi Fishoff, Rabbi Ezra Max, and Dovid Zicherman represented Brooklyn, while Binyamin Ginsberg represented Lakewood at Fort Bragg.
In the coming months, USCC will be opening opportunities for chaplains to interact with nursing home residents. There is also a junior chaplain youth mentorship program underway with 20,000 teenagers (ages 13-18) to work in healthcare facilities alongside chaplains and members of law enforcement helping them emerge as leaders amongst their peers and one day become full fledge chaplains.
By Shabsie Saphirstein