From Okinawa To Afghanistan

Since being posted to a United States Marine battalion in Okinawa almost two years ago, my son-in-law, Rabbi Yonatan Warren, a lieutenant in the United States Navy Chaplaincy Corp, has worked hard–- along with my daughter Leora -– to build a community of meaning for the Jewish personnel in Okinawa and its surroundings, as well as for all those men and women who might need his counseling and services.

It has not always been easy. As my daughter herself wrote in an op-ed in the Jewish Week just a few months ago, being one of very few Jews among tens of thousands of military personnel, not to mention other non-Jewish chaplains and their spouses, has presented more than its share of “interesting” encounters. Some have been funny, others less so. Through it all, I have felt strongly that they –- both of them -– are truly doing God’s work.

Our Jewish men and women in the service both need and deserve the spiritual support of clergy, and those of other faiths who are able to find the help that they need from a Jewish chaplain are discovering, often for the first time, that a Jew is a human being like him or herself. I know that sounds harsh, but there are more than a few people in the military from places far from the New York area (both literally and figuratively) who have never met a Jew before encountering my daughter and son-in-law. That’s a serious responsibility to shoulder, and they’ve done exceptional work.

But as we approach the High Holiday season, my son-in-law Yoni is preparing for a new challenge, a serious responsibility of an entirely different nature. He is preparing to deploy to Afghanistan for at least a month, though the holidays, to serve as a chaplain.

I have, in the past, written about coming to terms with my own history of coming of age during Viet Nam. Like so many of my generation, until the draft lottery came into effect, my college career was as much about avoiding being drafted, and protesting America’s involvement in a war in Southeast Asia that seemed so very far away from home, as it was about studying. When my son-in-law, who was raised in a proud military family and whose father was a career Navy man, chose to devote at least the first few years of his rabbinate to active duty service, it made me think long and hard about the juxtaposition of his choices and my own.

The events of September 11, 2001 had forced me to enter into this extended period of introspection and heshbon hanefesh long before Yoni and my daughter were married, but actually having an immediate family member who chose to serve in the military was not something I could have envisioned when I was a college student. If anything, as I wrote some years ago, I along with far too many members of my generation generically devalued and disrespected the service of our contemporaries… and we were wrong. I don’t believe we were wrong to protest the war, but we were certainly wrong to associate the prosecution of that war with the personnel tasked with carrying out their orders.

I have long since transitioned from my precious ambivalence to being enormously proud of Yoni and Leora’s service, and, as a good American should, I am grateful for it. They are doing what relatively few do, and they do it freely, as a matter of choice.

But Yoni’s imminent departure for Afghanistan has served to intensify all of these feelings that I had long since laid to rest. Signing on to serve as a chaplain in some far-flung military installation in Japan… I understand that, and am obliged to respect that choice. But being deployed to Afghanistan, which I’m told is, at this point, far less dangerous than it used to be but still is the land of IED’s and random violence, I must admit to being more than a little concerned. Proud, for sure. Worried, equally for sure. Aren’t we trying to withdraw from there? Why get sent there now?

To which my son-in-law would quickly reply, “Because that’s my job. That’s what I’m trained to do, and that’s why I’m serving as a Chaplain.” He’s right, of course. It is his job, and he’s probably needed there more urgently than he’s needed in his relatively comfortable set-up in Okinawa. But that doesn’t mean that I have to be happy about it. He’s much braver than I am.

My daughter (by the way, I am amazed at the number of people who, when I share the news that Yoni is being deployed to Afghanistan, ask if Leora is going with him… really? Really?) was offered the chance to come home for the holidays, but to her great credit, she refused. She felt that, when Chaplains are deployed, the other spouses rally around the wives (or husbands) left behind, and she didn’t want to be perceived as leaving at such a critical time. We are, of course, enormously proud of her as well, and we respect her choice.

But… in a Skolnik family gesture of solidarity, we are deploying our younger daughter, Talya, to Okinawa, to spend the time of Yoni’s deployment with Leora so that she will not be alone. Yes, we’re proud of Talya too! She also serves the cause…

With our older son a practicing rabbi in Orlando and our younger son an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, as best as I can tell, that leaves just us old folks at home for the holidays. We have a lot to pray for… and to be thankful for.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.