January 28, 2020

The Jewish Chaplain

Rabbi Israel HIrsch. Photo by Shawn Rodgers

Rabbi Israel Hirsch, 86

For over 40 years, Rabbi Israel Hirsch has served as a chaplain, helping police officers and their families in the Los Angeles area.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1933 (the year Hitler came to power), Hirsch’s family left the country after his father was taken to a concentration camp on the night of Kristallnacht and detained for a month. In 1939, two weeks before World War II began, Hirsch, together with his mother and three siblings, escaped to England and were in London during the Blitz. They were evacuated to the countryside, where they lived with an Anglican priest and his wife.

During this period, Hirsch’s father made it to the United States and wanted his family to join him. Unfortunately, the U.S. was not allowing many immigrants in, so Hirsch’s mother wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt and somehow managed to get 200 Orthodox Jews onto a troop ship in the middle of the war. 

After arriving in New York, the family spent three days on Ellis Island. “I was 9 years old at the time and considered an enemy alien by the FBI and we were interrogated,” Hirsch said.

“I happen to be a Jewish chaplain and I do Jewish funerals for officers but I am required to serve all officers and their families.”

Hirsch later attended college, where he minored in contemporary Jewish studies and psychology. He decided to become a rabbi in 1949 after traveling to Israel and learning in a seminary in Jerusalem.

In 1954, Hirsch was drafted into the U.S. Army and served for two years. Because he spoke German, he was sent to Germany and worked as an interrogator for military intelligence. 

Hirsch met his wife, Phyllis, in 1966. They married in 1967, moved to Los Angeles, had four children and today have 26 grandchildren. 

After retiring in the 1980s, Hirsch became part of the L.A. Crisis Response Team started by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. It was during this time that someone suggested he become a chaplain. “I wanted to give back to the community and thought it was a nice idea as I can also help out Jews,” he said. 

In 2006, Hirsch became attached to the North Hollywood police station. Since then, he has become part of the police advisory board for chaplains and is involved mostly with ceremonial duties, including graduations of police officers. “As a chaplain, it has to do not only with Jewish police officers. I happen to be a Jewish chaplain and I do Jewish funerals for officers, but I am required to serve all officers and their families,” Hirsch said. 

Since becoming a chaplain, Hirsch has received many accolades, including the Los Angeles Police Department’s Saint Michael Award for Chaplain of the Year. And he seems in no hurry to slow down. “Thank God I am healthy,” he said. “As long as I can, I’d like to continue doing this because once you retire and you sit and do nothing, you go downhill.”