What Chaplains Do

When people think of rabbis, they instinctively associate them with synagogues. That’s where most people encounter rabbis – when they come to services.

In reality, today’s rabbis play many different roles outside of synagogues, from the halls of academia to hospital and military chaplaincies. All are important. But of these, none is more important than the chaplaincy – and I say that as a pulpit rabbi.

I have written often over the past three years about my son-in-law Yoni’s three-year stint (accompanied by my daughter and granddaughter) as a Navy chaplain in Okinawa, Japan. Yoni is Rabbi Yonatan Warren, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011, a lieutenant in the Chaplaincy Corps.

Yoni returned to the States last December to begin a new posting as the Jewish chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. It’s a wonderful and prestigious position, which carries the promise of a somewhat quieter and more normal life, for at least the next three years.

But Yoni’s new position has been anything but calm.

At the Naval Academy, the corps of midshipmen is divided into brigades; each of the chaplains posted there is responsible for the “mids” in his/her brigade. Earlier this year, just a few short weeks after beginning at the Academy, one of Yoni’s mids – a young Catholic man­– took his own life. Yoni had to coordinate with the family, becoming involved in every aspect of the funeral planning, except, of course, for officiating at the funeral mass. It was a painful and searing experience.

And then, last week, the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.

One of the eight people who died in the accident was Midshipman Justin Zemser, who was in Yoni’s brigade. Yoni knew him well, because Justin was Jewish, and actively involved in Jewish life on campus. He was a regular at the Friday evening service that Yoni runs. He was enough of a regular to have developed a relationship with my granddaughter Calanit, and he referred to himself as “Calanit’s boyfriend.”

Yoni did training in both chaplaincy, and Officer Development School, in Columbia, S.C. No training prepares you to respond to a tragedy like the Amtrak crash. When people are responding to a traumatic death, all of the usual structure and sense of order that governs normal life is suspended, and there is little sense of reality as we know it.

The job of the clergy – in this case the chaplain – is to provide the structure, and the sense of order, such that there is one, for the family and all concerned, so as to make possible the organization of the funeral and all related to it.

Justin's family of course had the right to provide him with a funeral of their choosing. But because he was a midshipman, the Academy in Annapolis also wanted to provide the military honor due him. All of this needed to be coordinated with both the family and the Academy, and plans needed to be made to transport as many midshipmen as possible to the funeral.

Yoni ultimately was the officiating rabbi, and was responsible for integrating the wants and needs of the family, and those of the Academy.

Each of those eight people whose lives were so senselessly snuffed out was a precious soul; each of their families has stories to tell of how wonderful their loved ones were, and how terribly they will be missed.

We will always remember Justin as a wonderful young man, and a credit to the Naval Academy and to his country. We are, of course, proud of the role that Yoni played in helping Justin’s family cope with this tragic loss.

But this is also, in advance of Memorial Day, an opportunity for all of us to understand and appreciate the vital role of military chaplains. When life is at its worst, at war, in peacetime, in times of joy or inexpressible pain, they are there to provide help and solace.

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.