From squad car to synagogue

A former police officer, Michael Shochet is both  a cantor and a law enforcement chaplain. Courtesy of Cantor Michael Shochet
A former police officer, Michael Shochet is both
a cantor and a law enforcement chaplain.
Courtesy of Cantor Michael Shochet

It was July 1987. Michael Shochet was a young police officer working the midnight shift in Baltimore. A signal 13 came across the radio. An off-duty officer needed back-up.

Soon after Shochet and his fellow officers arrived at the 1100 block of Abbott Court, shots rang out.

Officer Tom Martini was shot through his shoulder by a mentally ill suspect standing less than four feet away.

“I grabbed Tom, who was screaming, and dragged him around the side of the house to get him out of the line of fire,” said Shochet. “That was a hugely traumatic experience. It’s been almost 30 years and I still remember that to this day.”

It proved to be a life changing event, one that would lead Shochet on a spiritual journey to create bridges among clergy, community and police departments.

Not long after the shooting, Shochet — who now lives in Fairfax County — found himself having a hard time working his beat. He found respite in his Reform congregation, Temple Emanuel, then located in Pikesville. Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl of Temple Emanuel encouraged Shochet to pursue cantorial school and Shochet was further mentored by Cantor Samuel Berman of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

The transition from the squad car to the pulpit was actually his third career move. After graduating from Ithaca College, he worked at WMAR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Baltimore, as an on-air reporter. When he first entered the police academy, he said, his fellow trainees were convinced that he was actually undercover for a story.

As an officer, he responded to people in their worst moments. Unfortunately, he wrote in an op-ed piece published in May in The Baltimore Sun, little has changed in his hometown.

The cynicism of some police officers, the violence carried out by some residents, were both crystallized in the death of Freddie Gray and the protests that followed. But Shochet, instead of despairing, outlined solutions and tactics that he has modeled as a law enforcement chaplain in northern Virginia.

When Shochet became the first cantor at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church nearly 18 years ago, he reached out to local law enforcement; today, he serves as the police chaplain coordinator of the Fairfax County Police Department. In that capacity he brings faith leaders together with the department and helps today’s officers prepare for what Maj. Ed O’Carroll, a 26-year veteran of the Fairfax Police Department, described as unique challenges.

“The new phenomenon in law enforcement is we’ve been on alert since 9/11, which was 15 years ago. For the average officer on the road, terrorism has been on their mind for most of their career,” said O’Carroll.

Filming of police officers is par the course — and something O’Carroll says his department encourages the community to do — but the speed at which such videos make it to the national news cycle is newer.

“Does it add a little bit of stress?” O’Caroll queried. “It may. That’s where folks like Mike, and peer support and education and training come into play.”

Shochet never received counseling after his partner was shot. The officers were given the day off and told to report back for duty as normal.

“There was no processing of it from an emotional, psychological or spiritual sense back then,” recalled Shochet. “It was kind of like ‘man-up’ and ‘this is what police work is all about.’”

That lack of care for the traumatized and the secondarily traumatized is part of what compels him to teach classes at the local police academy on how officers can take care of their spiritual well-being. It spurred him to join the FBI chaplaincy program and later become the first chaplain of any faith at the CIA. (He was at the Pentagon on Sept. 12, 2011 manning the chaplain tent. The smell of burning fuel, he said, will never leave him.)

Today, said Shochet, the approach to police psychological care is different.

“Our most valuable asset is our employees,” said O’Carroll. “They’re ordinary people we ask to do extraordinary things. We want them to know that they’re cared for and loved at all levels.”

Over the course of his nearly three decades with law enforcement, O’Carroll has seen a lot of change.
“We talk about things more. We talk about suicide. We talk about alcoholism and high blood pressure and high cholesterol,” he explained. “We’re not shy to recognize that we need to safeguard our employees against the dangers that come from stress.”

But what about the stress of citizens who are victims of criminal acts perpetrated by police?

“I think there’s kind of a meta-climate and a micro-climate,” said Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, where he and his family reside. “The meta-climate is fraught right now. You read the paper and you sort of look at what’s going on in the city, and overall, with crime and murder rate and the desperate need for police reform. There’s some large problems in front of us.”

In the micro-climates of individual neighborhoods, Burg said most people are just trying to go about their lives.

Molly Amster, who grew up in Montgomery County and now serves as the Baltimore director for Jews United for Justice, said that those whose “action and inaction” caused Gray’s death must be held accountable.

“Anything less would be a tragedy,” she added.

Burg shares those concerns.

“I’m worried in a sense that it’s hard for a lot of people right now to trust the criminal justice system,” he said. “The rule of law is obviously very important, but I think there’s a real deficit of trust right now.”

That trust, he said, has eroded over time. It didn’t start with Freddie Gray or John Greer, a Springfield, Va., resident allegedly shot and killed by former Fairfax County police officer Adam Torres. Torres’ trial, originally scheduled to begin Dec. 14, was postponed to April of next year.

Shochet addresses police abuses — which stem, he wrote, from an “us (the police) against them (everyone else)” mentality — in his class, sharing the story of former Baltimore police lieutenant Michael Timothy Snow, who was sentenced in 2001 to 14 years in federal prison for bank robberies. (In his first career in broadcast news, Shochet had filmed a ride-along with Snow.)

It’s also why Shochet advocates for law enforcement agencies to mandate visits to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“Police back then were seen as the bad guys because they were the ones who abused their power, and so I think it’s important to understand when you put that badge on what it means and how not to take advantage of the system,” said Shochet.

On the other hand, Shochet added, officers deserve support from the government and should not be put on trial through the public.

JUFJ advocates for improved police-community relations and part of that, they believe, includes reforming the state’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights to be more transparent.

“As [Shochet] indicated in his op-ed in The Baltimore Sun, to see a change we need significant cultural shifts within police departments and the larger society,” said Amster.

“Police misconduct and lack of accountability has led to serious community mistrust.”

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  1. I used to belong to Temple Rodef Shalom but moved to NC and never knew this about Cantor Shochet. Great article.


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