Saluting Our Military Chaplains

On Wednesday of this week, in Philadelphia, I was saddened but honored to be a co-officiant at the funeral service for Rabbi Aaron Landes, a prominent rabbi in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania for many years. Both as President of the Rabbinical Assembly and as a long-time friend of the family – his in-laws had been members of my congregation for over fifty years – it was a deeply meaningful experience for me.

What made the experience unique was that Rabbi Landes’ outstanding accomplishment as a pulpit rabbi was only one facet of his rabbinic career. He was also a retired Admiral in the United States Navy Chaplaincy Corp, having served both in active duty and in the reserves for thirty-four years. He was among the highest-ranking rabbis ever to serve in the Navy chaplaincy.

Like most American Jews, up until the past few years, I knew next to nothing about the military chaplaincy and the rabbis who served in it. As a pulpit rabbi, I have had many encounters with hospital chaplains, but very, very few with military chaplains. After all, I thought (as so many do), how many Jews are there in the military anyway? How important could their work possibly be when there are, relatively speaking, so few Jews to minister to in that context?

The short answer to the question of how many Jews there are in the military is “far fewer than non-Jews,” but that is not really the issue. Whether there are few or many, they, too, are entitled to have their spiritual needs met and nourished. Further, Jewish chaplains don’t minister only to Jews.

With the death of Rabbi Hershel Schacter in March of 2013, the American public – and large portions of the Jewish community – were provided a window into the invaluable and difficult work that Jewish chaplains performed during the Second World War when the New York Times ran a front-page article on him. Rabbi Schacter, of blessed memory, was among the first American troops to enter the Buchenwald concentration camp upon its liberation, and the image of him leading a Shavuot service for the emaciated survivors is among the more enduring images of that awful time.

But it was my son-in-law Rabbi (Lt.) Yonatan Warren’s entry into the Navy chaplaincy two years ago that brought me even closer to a branch of rabbinic practice that I had little real-time experience with.

My son-in-law is based in Okinawa, where there are some thirty thousand American military personnel of all branches of the armed services. There are a decent number of Jews among them, including a small population of expatriates from America and other countries who now make Okinawa their home. His duties have shifted somewhat but when he was the “base chaplain,” he ran Shabbat and holiday services, organized special holiday events, taught classes and made sure there was as much kosher food as possible for purchase and also in the commissary. There were always a good number of non-Jews who would show up at services and holiday meals, and that is a key fact.

The most important thing to know about military chaplains is that their orders are to service all personnel, regardless of faith or lack thereof. People tend not to adequately appreciate what that means. He is not required, nor allowed, to officiate at a mass for Catholics, or a service for Buddhists. But he isr equired to counsel them, to care for them, and to minister to their needs. If a Muslim soldier comes to a Jewish chaplain and says that he needs prayer mats, that chaplain is every bit as much obligated to help the Muslim as she is a Jew who would say that he needs siddurim. If a sailor violates a rule and winds up in the brig, the Jewish chaplain would visit him/her regardless of religious orientation. The various kinds of counseling that chaplains are called upon to perform are not religion-specific. They deal mostly with universal conditions of the human spirit.

Of the many things my son-in-law has told us about his work since being in Okinawa, the one that resonated most powerfully with me, whether it is on a ship, as he was when recently deployed, or on his base, is that what he tries hardest to do, as much as he can, is to walk around being nice to people… just being a warm and friendly presence.

Think about it. The military is not a setting in which the average interaction with others, particularly superiors, is warm and fuzzy. By and large, the military personnel who serve in the standing army are young, and far from home, family, and everything familiar to them. Chaplains represent their religious traditions, and of course that is their special duty. But in addition, they represent a caring presence, someone who will listen to a homesick Marine or a young recruit in trouble and scared. In times of crisis, they are the ones who bring solace and strength to those who serve, and especially to those who are in harm’s way.

On good days, I allow myself to think that I do important work in my rabbinate. I value my own work. But I do believe that the work of a military chaplain – in this instance, a Navy chaplain – is particularly challenging, and deserves the respect and gratitude of us all. Yoni, this one’s for you. Men like Rabbi Landes paved a way for you and your colleagues to follow, and he was deeply gratified to know that the work that was so important to him is equally important to this generation of rabbis. We all salute you!

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

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