Kabbalat Shabbat in Camp Foster: The Challenges of a Marine Chaplain

I would imagine that rest and relaxation are the two most important criteria of a really good summer vacation, especially when one’s job is stressful. But if it is also true that expanding one’s horizons and learning about parts of the world that were completely unfamiliar are also important components, then my wife and I are enjoying one of our most successful summer vacations ever, here in Okinawa, Japan, and soon in Kyoto and Tokyo.

As I mentioned in last week’s article, my son-in-law Yoni, an ordained rabbi, is a Navy chaplain posted to a Marine battalion here in Okinawa. He and my daughter Leora have been here since the fall, and have another year-and-a-half (at least) of time to serve here before returning to an as yet undetermined assignment somewhere in the continental United States. I say “at least” because the Navy has a way of changing its mind on issues like this. Yoni and Leora thought they were going to be serving either at bases in Naples, Italy, or in Pearl Harbor, only to find out- after signing up- that Okinawa was their destination. So there’s no way of knowing things like this for sure when you’re dealing with the military. The nature of the deal is that you follow orders, and go where you are told to go, regardless of where it is, or where you thought you were going.

For my wife, Robin, and me, the enormous physical distance between Forest Hills and Okinawa has been mitigated considerably by modern communications technology. We thank God every day for voice-over-internet-protocol, in our case Vonage, which makes calling our children free (and vice-versa, of course; they have a 718 number in Okinawa!), and of course for Skype, which enables us to live out the vision of Bell Telephone’s futuristic “picture phone” from the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park in 1965… ironically right near where I’m now living! With Vonage and Skype, we can talk with each other every day without worrying about the expense, and it is a godsend. Obviously, for soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is an incalculable boon. We are fortunate indeed to be living in a time where technology has so mitigated the loneliness of great distances.

But still… Okinawa is very, very far from Queens. After a close to fourteen-hour flight from JFK to Tokyo, we flew almost three additional hours to Okinawa! For these old bones, that’s a lot of time to be in flight. I never thought that flying to Israel from New York would feel “less than” compared to another destination, but I guess my friends on the west coast would laugh at me for saying that…

But physical distance and its accompanying issues aside, it would be hard to overstate the stark contrast between the richness of Jewish life in central Queens- my part of the world- and the challenges my son-in-law faces in being a Jewish presence and spiritual leader in Okinawa. There are some thirty thousand military personnel spread out on more than ten bases on the island, and among them there are, indeed, Jews. But as you might imagine, there are relatively few of them, and among the relatively few, there are even fewer who would choose to come to a Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat service on base, as opposed to “going into town” to celebrate the arrival of the weekend. Jewish marines who choose to identify publicly and proudly as Jews are indeed the few and the proud.

That said, come six thirty in the evening on Fridays, Yoni runs a Kabbalat Shabbat service in a small chapel on base. There are a few “regulars,” usually a few drop-ins, and a few others I would classify as just curious. It is hardly a given that everyone who attends that service is Jewish, so even with the most liberal read of who might be Jewish, the question of whether or not there is a Minyan can be an interesting one. But the service is there for whoever attends, and I have to say how proud I am of Yoni for the spirit and dedication that he brings to his special rabbinate.

All who attend, regardless of who they are, what faith they are, how they are dressed (it’s after hours, so uniforms are not required), or any other qualifier, are made to feel welcome, and invited to taste the spiritual warmth that comes with a traditional greeting of Shabbat. And- an extra bonus, proving once again that no Jewish function is complete without food- there is always an Oneg Shabbat following the service, affording an opportunity for fellowship and easy conversation.

Of all of the responsibilities that Yoni carries as a Lieutenant and Chaplain, actually running a Jewish religious service takes up the least of his time. Like all military chaplains, he is required to serve men and women of all faiths. He spends hours counseling Marines who are lonely, not fitting in, having troubles in their marriages (a big issue, especially for those who have been or soon will be deployed), proactively working on the issue of sexual assault, which is a major issue in the military and one they are working very hard to root out… the work is more than full time. And, when all of that is taken care of, there is always the issue of trying to get the commissary to understand the finer points of kosher food options- a constant and ongoing struggle.

In my Jewish neck of the woods, the question is not whether or not there is a place to attend services, but rather which among the many options to choose. Nor is the question whether there might be something resembling a kosher option at any of the local restaurants, but rather from which of the almost countless kosher restaurants or supermarkets one might choose to avail oneself. There are certainly places in America that are far more Jewishly challenging than Queens; almost all are in terms of the richness of Jewish life. But living on a Marine base in Okinawa and trying to create a meaningful Jewish presence there is in a category all its own…

Bravo for Yoni and Leora, and all the male and female chaplains who serve our country so well and so nobly in the far flung corners of the globe- where the long arm of the American military reaches. And, of course, bravo for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, and marines whom they serve! Their sacrifice in the cause of our freedom is surely underappreciated by most of us. It is difficult and lonely to be so far from family and friends, and what they do, they do for us. I am honored to have this chance to salute them!

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