Friday, March 4, 2011

Jewish Military Chaplains

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I stepped foot on a military base.

You see, a year or two ago, my family met a new Tampa resident. She was a new parent at the Hillel School where my son is a student. I met her, her son and her two daughters. I didn't meet her husband, though, until a couple of weeks ago. That's because he is an officer in the Army Special Forces, and he's spent most of his time during these past two years in Afghanastan. He's there a lot. I think he said that he's done 8 rotations in that country.

Yesterday, I was invited, along with my family, to attend the ceremony for his promotion to Lt. Colonel. I went with my family down to MacDill AFB, about a half-hour drive due south of my synagogue. Once we got on the base, we were amazed at the size of it - even though I knew this wasn't true, I always picture baracks and other military stuff when I hear "Military Base." But, this was really a small town. Houses. Schools. Shopping. A golf course. Playgrounds. You get the idea. It made an impression, I guess, because it made it clear how big this thing is - the military, I mean. And, I don't just mean big in numbers. I mean how all-inclusive, all-involved it is to run a military in this day and age. It's more than just soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen, more than guns and ammo and trucks and planes. It's life - all of it.

The ceremony itself was unbelievable. For me, it was deeply moving. The new Lt. Colonel's superior, a Colonel whose name I've forgotten, spoke about how our friend had responded to the attack which famously resulted in the capture of Jessica Lynch. Realizing that, in part, this had happened because of a lack of preparation on the part of the soldiers, he created a training program for non-combat soldiers, to keep them well prepared, in case combat did break out around them. The program took off, and spread throughout the Army. The Colonel made it clear - this program has, without a doubt, saved lives. Probably many.

I looked around the scene, and saw a few dozen men and women in dress uniform and, mostly, fatigues, and realized that each of them (they were, I believe, all officers) had dedicated their lives to serving our country. They had, it seemed likely, each been involved in life and death in a way in which I never have, and probably never will (for which I am pretty darn grateful). They had risked their lives, saved lives, and possibly taken lives. All in the name of protecting us.

I'm a Rabbi, which people tend to think of as an "Important Job." On my good days, I can really make a difference in someone's life. On a really good day, I can make a small difference in the world. I am, through my title if nothing else, respected, because of my position in the community. But, I have to admit, I felt somewhat silly standing there surrounded by Special Forces soldiers. My job felt inconsequential. Certainly somewhat self-indulgent, and self-important.

You don't have to convince me I'm wrong. I certainly know about the value of, the power of, religion. I accept that. I love it, and I embrace it. But, it's all relative. Compared to what these men and women are doing, it really is pretty trivial. And very, very easy. Because of my job, I miss a lot of dinners. Our friend just got back from something like 5 months over in Afghanastan.

Remembering something that a Rabbinic Chaplain/recruiter told me in Rabbinical School, I did some quick Googling. According to the Union for Reform Judaism, in 2005 there were about 1,500,000 men and women in the US Military. 

There were 29 Active Duty Jewish Chaplains.

I'll admit that I'm proud to tell you that I gave my card to that Colonel, and asked him to pass it on to someone who might find a use for me. Some way in which I can volunteer my Rabbinic services to them. It would be such a drop in the bucket, such a miniscule gesture, compared to what they give. But, I couldn't help but feel that I owed them at least that much. I really, truly hope that they find something for me to do. I was deeply, deeply impressed by the people standing around me yesterday evening, watching one of their own receive a great honor. If I can give back in some small way, it would truly be a great honor, for me.


Dena said...

It truely is an honor to attend the promotion of a soldier, and not many people outside the military circles fully comprehend the dedication that soldiers go through. It is very inspiring to hear how much you appreciated them for sharing that moment with you.

Stephen B. said...

This reminded me of a story regarding my childhood Rabbi (and the Rabbi who conducted my parent's marriage ceremony), Sydney Lefkowitz. Perhaps you've seen this story, but he was a Chaplain during WWII and conducted the first Jewish service in liberated Germany during the war. Here's a nice video with excerpts from that service: Also a brief article: