MIDDLETON – In 2016, Middleton Police Chief James DiGianvittorio went on a trip to Israel with other Massachusetts law enforcement officials to learn about Israeli counter-terrorism strategy. During a visit to the Western Wall, DiGianvittorio made sure to Facetime his old pal: Rabbi Asher Bronstein of Chabad of the Merrimack Valley in Andover.
“We prayed together at the Wailing Wall, and I put some notes in the wall for him,” said DiGianvittorio. “It’s something that’s been near and dear to my heart – he’s been a great friend.”
This was just one of many special moments that DiGianvittorio and Bronstein have shared. They’ve lit menorahs, spun dreidels, and had deep conversations about Judaism, anti-Semitism, and life in general at the police station or over a home-cooked Shabbat meal at Bronstein’s home. DiGianvittorio was invited to Bronstein’s son’s wedding, and recently, DiGianvittorio even attended his first-ever bris.
“We talk about a lot of things – the conversation goes in a hundred different directions,” he said of his time with Bronstein.
The two first met in 2004, when they were introduced by Evelyn Rothschild, a Jewish resident of Middleton. They became fast friends, and DiGianvittorio soon made Bronstein a rabbinical chaplain for the Middleton police.
Since then, Bronstein has formed up friendships with several members of local law enforcement, including the police chiefs of Andover, Boxford, Haverhill, Methuen, North Andover, Tewksbury, and as well as State Police Major Pasquale Russolillo, the head of police departments in northeastern Massachusetts.
“Law enforcement puts their life on the line, and there is no question that I learn from them, they learn from me, and I try to be a vehicle of the Torah to everyone in law enforcement,” said Bronstein, who noted that as the son of Russian immigrants, he grew up afraid of police after hearing stories of their anti-Semitic violence in the former Soviet Union.
Things are different now. “We talk often, we text often, I invite them to my home,” the rabbi said. “They come for Shabbat, they come to our home for holidays, they come to our Sukkah celebrations, they come to Hanukkah events. I try to get them to learn a little bit of the Jewish community.”
“I just loved being there,” said Major Russolillo about Shabbat dinners at Bronstein’s home. “It was peaceful, the singing was unbelievable, the food – it was just amazing.”
Russolillo said he didn’t know much about Judaism before befriending Bronstein. “I knew that it was a religion a little different from the others – I knew that they didn’t believe Christ has come yet, but nothing more,” he said. “But meeting the rabbi on Shabbat, of course I started doing reading. When you start understanding the religion, and the Holocaust – it’s all coming together.”
Learning about the Jewish past has made Russolillo more determined to combat the increasing number of local anti-Semitic incidents. “It makes you understand what the rabbi and the Jewish people are going through, and it makes you understand that this is wrong,” said Russolillo, who accompanied many of his colleagues to the June 5 rally for peace, unity, and inclusion at Peabody City Hall. “There’s no place for that in this society.”
Russolillo also believes that alliances between clergy and law enforcement – and the public’s awareness of these bonds – can go a long way in combatting bigotry. “The more that we all meet together and people become aware that law enforcement and all types of religions are always meeting, that’s how you become safe,” he said. “We have this thing called the ‘devil that never dies.’ We can destroy this devil if we all go against the devil, and we’re all together as one.”
One of the many topics Bronstein discusses with the officers is Jewish views on security, arguing that proper education is the best way to ensure peace. “Parents need to be educated on how to be parents,” he said. Bronstein often reinforces to officers the importance of the Seven Laws of Noah given by God that advocate belief in God and respect for all living beings.
“We have an obligation to make sure that the world is a good world, and the problem begins with a lack of two things: one of them is a moment of silence, and the other is a lack of knowledge of the Seven Noahide Laws,” said Bronstein. “We have an obligation to teach it, and the more law enforcement, the faculty of schools, and everyone knows about it, the better we will all be.”
Russolillo feels a sense of spirituality whenever he spends time with Bronstein. “Meeting the rabbi, we’ll read something and he explains it to me, and that’s like going to church – I just learned something from a holy man.”