Chicago Police Department Officers Roger Heath, Jr. and Michael Specht understand a
Yiddish. And a smattering of Hebrew, too. They know when observant Jews daven--and why cellphones are not carried or used from Friday at dusk to Saturday at dusk. They've been to plenty of Shabbat dinners and other
. When it's Purim, they eat hamantaschen; when it's Chanukah, they enjoy a latke or two.
Officers Heath and Specht are both church-going Roman Catholics. But as partners on the Chicago Police Department's (CPD) Place of Worship Safety Advisory Team (POWSAT), a one-of-a-kind initiative of the Rogers Park CPD's 24th District, they have endeared themselves to those they have served.
Endearment is not part of their job description. Keeping religious-based communities safe and secure is. Yet as they have traveled through the community, offering presentations and trainings to synagogues, churches, temples, and mosques, along with religious-affiliated organizations, such as The ARK, a JUF partner, they have made clear their passion for their mission and their own moral earnestness.
"When people go somewhere every week to pray, they shouldn't have to worry" about those who would do them harm, said Heath, a 20-year CPD veteran.
The officers and many other public officials acknowledge, however, that the reality is different. As recently as this past January, West Rogers Park experienced a spate of antisemitic vandalism. Residents in suburban Niles, Park Ridge, and Glenview were aghast to wake up to antisemitic flyers at their doorsteps this February and March.
POWSAT was developed in 2019 at the behest of then-Commander of the 24th District Roberto Nieves and Sergeant Shawn Sisk in the wake of the October 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, during which a lone gunman killed 11 worshippers and wounded six others. Since then, Heath and Specht, also a 20-plus-year CPD veteran, have visited each of the scores of synagogues in the district, which include Orthodox shuls in West Rogers Park and the Reform Emanuel Congregation in the district's southeast edge.
Their visits entail more than tips on what to do in the event of an unusual occurrence that raises suspicion-such as an unrecognized car parked in front of an Orthodox synagogue on a Saturday morning--or how to comport oneself if approached by a stranger spewing antisemitic epithets. The officers help Jewish leaders develop drills in cases of actual emergencies, and they return to the houses of worship to critique re-enactment plans that the synagogues have developed.
"Of the dozens of drills [we have reviewed]," Heath said, almost all are "spot-on."
In the wake of the synagogue hostage crisis in Colleyville, Tex., and the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, POWSAT finds itself in great demand. Heath and Specht have gone beyond the 24th District and the city limits to offer their expertise. Their reputation, said those knowledgeable with their work, precedes them.
"They go above and beyond the call of duty," said Rabbi Moshe Wolf, the Jewish chaplain of the Chicago police and fire departments, who has known them for many years. Both officers, he added, have made "tremendous" efforts to "understand the culture, people, and customs" of the Jewish community.
Marna Goldwin, the Chief Executive Officer of The ARK, concurred. "They are extremely knowledgeable about Jewish communal life and respectful of rules and traditions," she said, adding that one of her staff members commented to her, following the officers' visits to The ARK, "'I have attended a ton of trainings over the years, and this is the best I've attended.'"
For their part, Heath and Specht have reflected on how their own religious backgrounds have prepared them for their work.
A parochial school alumnus, Specht said that the priests and nuns who educated him "would be very impressed by how the traditions in private life" have taken on professional utility.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.