Rabbi Brian Comrov wouldn’t normally make a phone call during Shabbat, but a life was on the line.
Comrov, who works as a chaplain, is an Othodox rabbi who observes the sabbath. In keeping with that practice, Comrov abstains from a variety of activities from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. But Comrov was caring for a woman experiencing suicidal ideation, and he wanted to ensure her welfare.
In addition to his day job as a chaplain employed by Brighton Hospice, Comrov also is a chaplain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Many tasks fall to Comrov in that role, including supporting the spiritual and emotional needs of service members and their families. Comrov lives in the Sherman Park area of Milwaukee.
For instance, he said, the spouse of a service member deployed to Afghanistan was in distress. Her husband had a calming effect, Comrov said, and the military was working to bring him home. In the meantime, he had daily conversations with her to provide mental health support – sometimes multiple times a day, including on Shabbat.
“They were so grateful that I was able to make that connection while he wasn’t there to be able to keep her alive until he could come home and give her the further assistance that she needed,” Comrov said. “I’m most proud of being able to get involved with literally saving people’s lives.”
An Illinois native, Comrov said he came to Wisconsin to complete chaplain training at the Sinai Medical Center through a program funded by philanthropist Helen Bader, of blessed memory.
Comrov enlisted in the Navy 11 years ago when he was 40. He’s worked as a chaplain, mainly in hospice care, for the past two decades. Much of that work is with the elderly, and Comrov wanted to reach a younger demographic.
Although ages range in the military, many service members are in their late teens or their 20s. The average age of people who were enlisted in 2021 was around 27 years old, according to the Department of Defense.
Comrov said he was attracted to the opportunity to work with that younger population, as well as to the idea of supporting Jewish military personnel so they could participate in Jewish life.
“That’s what a rabbi does, and it’s definitely a unique calling,” Comrov said. “I was excited to do it, even though there is a certain amount of danger involved.”
As a military chaplain, Comrov holds the rank of officer and has four primary duties. The first is to provide services to military members of his own faith, and the second is to refer members of other faiths to the appropriate religious leader. That might include connecting someone with a priest to give confession or with an imam to access a carpet.
His third responsibility is to provide care for all members of the service, from anyone newly enlisted all the way to the rank of admiral. Fulfilling this duty could involve providing emotional support or spiritual guidance, for example.
Finally, Comrov also serves as an adviser. If a unit were to be deployed to Afghanistan, for example, he would educate leadership on the religious customs to expect and what they need to be aware of in the way of ethical issues.
Although he is enlisted in the Navy, Comrov said he also works with other branches to provide his services.
Chaplains are deemed “non-combatants.” With that status, according to a military guide, service members such as Comrov “will not engage in combatant duties, will not conduct activities that compromise their noncombatant status, will not function as intelligence collectors or propose combat target selection and will not advise on including or excluding specific structures on the no-strike list or target list.” Chaplains’ role as an adviser, the guide says, is limited to issues of ethics, morals and religion.
Military chaplains do not carry guns. Because he is not armed, Comrov said he travels with a bodyguard whenever he is in uniform.
As a reservist, Comrov’s minimum obligations include a monthly weekend of drilling and a two-week period each year known as annual training. Because he is a supervisor, Comrov said his commitment is more involved. He said he handles calls and emails for the Navy daily.
His years of service have included a stateside deployment to Virginia, where Comrov worked in what he described as a “process center.” Service members would visit the facility for briefing before they were sent to destinations around the world, or they would return to the center from deployment.
As a chaplain, Comrov would sit with people to support them through fears of being sent to war zones or listen to stories of trauma when they returned.
“There was a lot of intense counseling on my side,” he said. “People wanted to see the chaplain and just open up about their experience, whether it was fear or trauma or anger for having to be forced to be deployed to some place that they didn’t want to be deployed to, leaving their family and stuff like that.”
He has also completed humanitarian trips with the Navy to locations including the Appalachian Mountains and Hawaii. Those experiences have entailed providing medical and dental care for people who lack access and conducting religious services.
Comrov said the goal of his work as a military chaplain is “to be a light unto the nations,” referencing a passage in the Book of Isaiah. His goal is to create a good name for the Jewish people. While his duties can entail tasks such as conducting a Passover Seder on a boat, at other times, he’s providing emotional, spiritual or workplace support for people who need advice or direction.
“People of other beliefs, other religions can see that a Jewish person is the one that took the time for them, that helped them through difficult situations in life,” Comrov said. “I think that is really the legacy.”
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Rabbi Brian Comrov said he came to Wisconsin to complete chaplain training at the Aurora Sinai Medical Center through a program funded by philanthropist Helen Bader, of blessed memory. Comrov lives in the Sherman Park area of Milwaukee.