Rabbi Ari Montanari of Congregation Pirchei Shoshanim in Mission Viejo was concerned that there was nobody in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) representing the specific needs of the Jewish people. While the department has a vibrant chaplain program supporting unincorporated cities in the county, the role of a Jewish chaplain had gone unfilled for many years.
In February Rabbi Montanari was appointed to fill that gap in the chaplain corps. He handles Jewish affairs for the OCSD and acts as a resource for any and all other issues that require chaplain support. His role is to support the chaplaincy needs of the community and the sheriff by means of general counseling, supporting grieving families, helping with end of life issues and covering the religious needs for all.
Augmenting the sheriff’s chaplaincy staff in south Orange County, Rabbi Montanari participates in ride-alongs with the sheriff’s staff, helps with death notifications and offers counseling when people are apprehended by the sheriff. He prays for and with people as requested and opens up meetings with prayers in the same way as other religious officials.
“While there is not a lot of specific activity for a Jewish chaplain, it is important to have a stake in the game,” Rabbi Montanari said. “For the sake of inclusion and diversity, people need to see that a rabbi is available to them.”
He added, “I’m available 24:6, but OCSD knows how to get hold of me even on Shabbat. That’s especially important when there is a specific Jewish chaplaincy need.”
Rabbi Montanari, the son of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, found his Jewish roots in Poland in 2011, and became a chaplain at March Air Force Base in Riverside. Deciding to “embrace Judaism at an intense level, He then received his rabbinic ordination at Pirchei Shoshanim, an Orthodox yeshiva and a military endorser for chaplaincy into the US Armed Forces, specifically for qualified Orthodox rabbis.
Observing an unfulfilled need, Rabbi Montanari also got involved in the new Shomer Shabbos Civil Air Patrol Squadron started in OC. As he explained, the USAF Auxiliary operated the civil air patrol that often held training on Fridays and Saturdays, which excluded religious Jews. Now he is “getting frum (religious) families to get adults and kids involved” in the new program that focuses on civilian safety measures, such as where to sit in a restaurant to avoid possible confrontation, what to do if attacked, how to deal with an active shooter and how to be a first responder and aerospace education on days convenient for Jews.
“It’s like the Boy Scouts on steroids,” he quipped. “The program exposes young people to engineering, aerospace, military culture and serving one’s country, but it’s all run by rabbis.”
Rabbi Montanari is also developing a program to help synagogues with their security needs. “Unless congregations have money, they don’t have security,” he said. “We need rapid-response security programs, anti-terrorism training and people standing around shuls to observe activity. We need to step it up, and we have to do it ourselves.”
For the past year, Rabbi Montanari has been working with Rabbi Shaul Danyiel on developing Congregation Pirchei Shoshanim. Serving unaffiliated Jews in South Orange County, as well as members of the military, the congregation teaches people who were not raised religiously how to daven (pray) and teaches people Yiddishkeit one step at a time, according to the rabbi.
The congregation, which meets in Rabbi Montanari’s garage, has “the power of the yeshiva behind it,” with educational materials supplied online for learning how to speak Hebrew, how to pray and how to understand the Jewish religion. Congregation Pirchei Shoshanim had a community seder for 35 people. It is planning an all-night learning session for Shavuot.
In his spare time, Rabbi Montanari is also a blogger with The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Arutz Sheva 7 and is active in the research of Jewish historical sites in Europe. He is also a Jewish War Veteran and a member of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER).
“When you learn what Judaism means, it creates a different dynamic,” Rabbi Montanari concluded. “You can relate to people who are not religious or those who want to learn more by telling stories and asking questions.”
ILENE SCHNEIDER IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.