Goodbye, Queens; Hello, Okinawa!

In previous columns, I have mentioned the fact that my son-in-law, Lt. (jg) Yonatan Warren, is a Navy chaplain posted to Okinawa, Japan. Actually, he is a Navy chaplain posted to a Marine battalion in Okinawa, and he and my daughter Leora have been there since the fall.

Now that my wife and I have some time off together, we are leaving tomorrow for a “vacation destination” unlike any place we have traveled to before. We’re off for a week’s visit to Okinawa, and then another week, with our daughter, on the Japanese mainland, which is some six hundred miles north of Okinawa. We hope to visit Tokyo, Kyoto, and other places such as we are able.

I’ve traveled a good deal over the years, and will be doing more traveling than ever during this coming year in the context of my presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly. But I readily admit that I have absolutely no idea what it will be like to spend serious time in Japan. Truth to tell, my son and daughter-in-law live on a military base, one of many in Okinawa, where there are some thirty thousand American military personnel. While we’re in Okinawa we’ll be staying with them. So it’s not exactly like we’ll be immersed in Japanese culture right away. But once we leave Okinawa, all familiarity with language and surroundings is gone, and we will be completely dependent on our daughter’s growing ability to read Japanese to find our way around.

The American military presence in Okinawa has been in the news a lot this year. The Japanese and American governments have only recently signed off on an agreement that will move many of those Marines my son-in-law is serving off the island. Native Okinawans resent the American military presence, and this change has been a long time coming. But it will also be a long time being implemented, and for the time being, Okinawa is their home.

It didn’t take me long to learn that, in the pulpit rabbinate, the only true vacation is one taken far away from the community that you serve. The nature of the work is such that, no matter whether one is in the supermarket or the gym, getting a haircut or just taking a walk, the members of your synagogue are rarely far behind. My wife and I vacationed in Alaska one summer, and sure enough, in Anchorage, we happened upon congregants who were about to embark on a cruise of the Inner Passage. Go know!

It should go without saying that the technology that has tethered all of us to our iPhones and BlackBerrys has only served to make it more difficult to really feel genuinely “away.” No matter where in the world you are, as long as there’s an internet connection, work will follow you. Articles can be e-mailed, calls can be made, and flights can be arranged.

But I do indeed admit that, though I have more than a little trepidation about this particular trip, it passes that “far enough away” test to constitute a true vacation. You can’t go too much father away than Okinawa, and you can’t too much farther away from the Jewish community of central Queens than a Marine base! No kosher pizza or shawarma over there! But just to keep me in line and make sure I don’t lose my rabbinic moorings while I’m away, my son-in-law asked me to “say a few words” at the service he runs on Friday nights… I love it! I get to stretch the parameters of my rabbinate after all these years.

I hope to be able to write while I’m away, and I trust there will be many impressions to share. Most of all, however, what I realize more with each passing moment is that it’s not Rabbi Skolnik who’s going to Okinawa, but rather the father who can’t wait to see his daughter and son-in-law. Vacation or not, that’s a wonderful realization to come to. I wouldn’t want it any other way….

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