Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, March 16, 2012

News From the Front

Nowadays a couple thousand Jews serve in the US Military. Jews don’t make up a huge percentage of enlistees, but their presence is known. For many, their Jewish identity is important to them as a soldier. Indeed, for all soldiers that core spiritual identity can be a lifeline in the hardest of situations.

This is where army chaplains come in. The role of any chaplain in the military is an important one, as the stresses of a combat soldier are many. Soldiers deal with homesickness and uncertainty. Their every day ponders life and death and they are constantly aware of the thin line that divides the two. Our soldiers, Jewish and non-Jewish, believe deeply in their comrades and their cause. They give a tremendous amount of physical, emotional and spiritual energy towards that cause, though.

A very good friend of mine, David Frommer, was recently ordained as a cantor from Hebrew Union College. Ever since he served for a year in the Israeli army, David’s life’s passion has been to be a chaplain and support our men and women in uniform. After ordination, he enlisted in the US army and is anxiously awaiting deployment overseas. He recently emailed me about his experiences and I want to share with you parts of his letter. This is the inside look into the troops; or more precisely, the inside-look to the psyche of the men and women serving overseas:

“Greetings from Camp Shelby, Mississippi… At various times, chaplains in different senior positions throughout the Army and the National Guard have proclaimed that I would be spending the next ten months in (read the following list in one breath):

Germany, Bahrain, Upstate New York, Afghanistan, "An undetermined location outside the continental United States," Downstate Mississippi, Kuwait, "An undetermined location inside the continental United States," and my living room at home, with the deployment canceled.

They have assured me that the need for Jewish chaplains is so great that once I get overseas, I will scarcely spend two weeks in the same place…

…I have been blessed to provide my most successful religious support to Jewish soldiers in my brief career to date as a chaplain. Our congregation here in the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team is small but it reflects the entire visible light spectrum of Jewish identity in the diaspora, including:

  • A Chabad-certified ba'al t'shuva lieutenant who observes strict Kashrut and doesn't touch women.
  • His fellow lieutenant in the same company who is comfortably Reform yet eager to learn about obscure prayers for things like Kiddush levana (sanctifying the new moon).
  • Two captains who grew up in Jewish day school, are now Reform-to-Agnostic, and profusely apologize that they don't come to services more.
  • A sergeant-first-class who was adopted by a Jewish family, and who explained that 'because he grew up Conservative, he doesn't like services with lots of Hebrew.'
  • A private-first-class who attended Ramaz, the Jewish day school on the Upper East Side, and consequently knows more about Judaism than I learned in five years of graduate school.
  • A female specialist who converted to Judaism and is now married to a Bedouin from Haifa whom she met at an Israeli Army summer camp in Israel.
  • A specialist and a female captain who are both interested in converting to Judaism.
Serving a community of such diverse practice definitely has its challenges, especially when movement off post is difficult to arrange…[Yet] providing religious support to Jewish soldiers is incredibly rewarding work. The army is more supportive of Jewish practice than my grandparents' and even my father's generation could possibly have imagined when they served, but it is still a lonely and difficult path to walk. And yet it is precisely that potential for isolation, in the midst of a dangerous and uncertain future, that often binds Jewish soldiers tightly together, and opens them up to exploring their religion and culture in ways they might never consider in civilian life.

I was lucky enough to meet a young Jewish officer from an entirely different unit who happened to be briefly passing through Camp Shelby on his way to Afghanistan. He spotted me wearing my camouflage yarmulke (the single greatest conversation-starter ever) and told me he hadn't even known the Army had Jewish chaplains. I invited him to Shabbat services and he came to almost every one I offered in the few weeks he was here. Just before he left, he told me that until Camp Shelby, he hadn't been to a Jewish service since his bar mitzvah, and after meeting some of the other soldiers in our tiny community he wanted to return to his Jewish roots. I gave him my personal copy of the Siddur for Jewish Personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States and a yarmulke to match mine and told him to take care of himself because there's a synagogue waiting for him somewhere when he comes home. I hope he does…”

There is more to David’s correspondence. It is full of his normal humor and sarcasm. As I read it, though, I was amazed by the holy work he is doing and the maturity that seems to be growing with his difficult post.

I thought of David this week in particular, as recent military news from Afghanistan has been wrought with controversy. From the burning of the Quran on a base a few weeks ago to the massacre of 16 civilians by an American soldier in Kandahar last Sunday, tensions are running high. Both of these actions, the first by a group of soldiers, the second by an individual seemingly acting alone, are deplorable. Nothing is more offensive than the disrespect of people’s lives and the defilement of the sacred texts by which they live those lives.

These are simply senseless acts of hatred. They are also acts of hatred that reek of irrationality, frenzy and desperation. It behooves us to acknowledge that wars of all sorts breed such complicated emotions – in the soldiers and their families, as well as the civilians whom war affects. This isn’t an excuse for these actions. Yet it gives us pause.

I’m proud that my chaplain friend has dedicated himself to plunging into the physical and emotional depths with our troops. In theory he offers uniquely Jewish support, but his contribution goes beyond providing worship services. He’s there to address the unspoken, spiritual affects of war. Judaism has always, from the most ancient times, acknowledged the human factor of war. Justice is always at the center of the debate. Dignity and the preservation of life are paramount. We’re commanded to infuse morality into the heart of our military actions. The hope is that by infusing the Divine Presence into our actions, we’ll find ourselves building our world up, not tearing it down. That is preserving people’s spiritual well being, not jeopardizing it.

This idea lies at the heart of week’s torah portion: Vayakhel-Pekudey. The Israelites are still building the Tabernacle. The lists of natural resources they need to build it are many. The rare commodities they need to outfit it are numerous. But the commandment is for the entire community to bring these things only if their hearts so move them; to donate them only with a generous heart.

The Torah teaches that the Israelites came in droves and brought more than was necessary to complete the project. When that happens, Moses instructs the Israelites to stop the effort, that the work was enough – in Hebrew, dayam. Dayam, from the same root as dayenu. Enough. Know when it has been enough.

Tonight we honor our troops for coming forward like the Israelites did, their hearts moved with tremendous generosity towards the effort to defend the vulnerable and protect their country. As their community back home, we must spiritually support them in their labor, understanding the massive toll it takes on the spirit both while they are enlisted and when they come home. And, importantly, we must know when to say dayenu, enough. We pray for their speedy and safe return home and continued well-being when they do. Ken yhi ratzon.

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