Growing up, boys often aspire to one day become a policeman or fireman. That was not the case with Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Spike Anderson, who grew up in the suburbs of Boston. Of course, becoming a rabbi was also not in his long-range plan. Yet, today, he is in his seventh year with the temple and in his fourth year as a volunteer Jewish chaplain with the Sandy Springs Police Department.
Anderson’s three children know he is going on police duty when he dons one of his police-issued uniforms. He has also been issued a bulletproof vest and a badge. But, although he participates in periodic security training, Anderson wasn’t given a gun. “Guns are not an active part of my life,” he said, while acknowledging that he has shot one before.
According to Sandy Springs Police Chief Kenneth DeSimone, “chaplains have been imbedded with the U.S. armed forces since the 1700s.” He sees having police chaplains as “another way to offer assistance to our police officers and to the community.”
Anderson is not the only police chaplain serving more than 100 Sandy Springs police officers. First Baptist Church Atlanta Rev. Peter Urdanick has also been with the Sandy Springs police department, far longer than Anderson has. “He’s the one who took me to the police gym” the first time, said Anderson. “He goes often.” Mixing with the police as they work out is a way for the officers to become more comfortable with their chaplains. The objective, Anderson said, is “How do we get ourselves seen by this tight-knit group?”
Building up that comfort level has been a major goal of Anderson’s. Since he applied, went through a vigorous interview process and was accepted as a police chaplain, Anderson has been eager to know the officers “so they feel comfortable” calling on him for pastoral care. In the past year, he’s sensed a shift in the officers’ acceptance of him. “There have been a few times, mostly in the last six months” when officers have consulted with him about “issues of G-d. From my perspective, it is welcome. I don’t know why they are approaching me, but I know that I’m eager to be there for them. The beauty of being a chaplain is that you get to know people at a deeper level.”
Anderson explained that “for the most part, calls from officers are prompted by spiritual or theological issues, instead of straight psychology. They are on the front lines in so many different ways,” he said, referring both to crime-fighting, answering emergency calls, or even COVID response. “It’s hard on family life to be a police officer. It’s a hard profession to have as a career. But overwhelmingly, the Sandy Springs community is very supportive of them.”
So is the Jewish community in Sandy Springs, said Anderson. Like most synagogues nowadays, the front doors of Temple Emanu-El are not opened without a police officer present. “I have tremendous respect for police in this country and the Jewish community has appreciation for law enforcement,” he said.
Chief DeSimone said that the Sandy Springs police department is unique in having a few officers who are Jewish.
As DeSimone pointed out, the police are the only form of government that will come at 1 a.m. on New Year’s Eve when a citizen calls. “Anytime we get a call, it is some kind of crisis,” he said. Hence the need for chaplains, who not only ride along with officers, responding to calls and building relationships. “If there’s a particularly traumatic or death notification, such as if a young child is dead, the police officer can request that a chaplain accompany” the officer to notify that family.
DeSimone recalled that one of their first chaplains was with a police officer who responded to a fatal car accident, at about 2 a.m. The officer suggested that the chaplain go view the deceased in the car. The chaplain had never seen a dead body outside of a hospital or funeral home. The officer said, “This is what my police officers see all the time.” DeSimone said it was very emotional for the chaplain.
It is due to these kinds of experiences that DeSimone looks for “mental resolve and psychological toughness” when he hires a chaplain. He also seeks someone who is personable, outgoing and doesn’t mind working. He said it’s “like picking a reverend, minister, rabbi or imam for your church, synagogue or mosque.”
DeSimone said he liked Anderson’s personality. “He’s very engaging and easy to talk to. If you are not within the law enforcement family, you can be distrustful [of them]. It makes you hardened, jaded and hard to get close to.” He also noted that we’re living at a time “when it’s cool to hate the police. But when something bad happens, you don’t call a social worker; you call the police.”
The Sandy Springs chaplains typically work an average of six to eight hours a week for the police, although it could be 12 to 24, said DeSimone. “It depends on the season and what they have going on at their congregation.”
Chaplains are also called upon for more ceremonial duties. “Spike blessed the food at one of our Christmas parties,” the chief said. Anderson recalls giving an invocation at a city council meeting as well. “I am there if they need me.”
Chaplaincy, like the synagogue, is part of the Anderson family DNA. The rabbi’s wife, Marita, is a member of the large chaplaincy department at Northside Hospital. “She’s the Jewish representative, but she’s not just there for the Jewish patients,” he said.
Anderson, who obtained his nickname from his father, who grew up in Atlantic City and vowed at 10 years old to call his son by that “tough” name, said he applied to become a chaplain because he wanted to “give back” to the community. “I consider myself a civically minded person and I thought I could do some good,” he said.
It’s also important for him to be known specifically as a Jewish chaplain, always wearing his kippah, or head covering. “I wanted to have the officers get a closer look and relationship with someone visibly Jewish. It’s better for interfaith relationships when people see someone wearing a kippah and also a Sandy Springs police uniform.”