Bringing Jewish Culture Expands Our Community

By LT Steven A. Ballaban

Ten months ago, my wife and I were blessed with a grandson who lives only a few miles from us. It has been a joy to experience the wonder of a new child without the exhaustion of being a new parent! His mother and father are loving and nurturing and they are a gift to him, as he is to them. They are particularly careful about feeding him healthy and nutritious food, so when his mother asked if I could bake him sourdough bread I said, “of course.”

I couldn’t find anyone who had a sourdough starter, so I spent three weeks cultivating the wild yeast that is the “secret ingredient” to sourdough. My first few loaves were appreciated, but not Instagram-ready! But finally, after about two months, I could bake loaf after loaf of perfect sourdough. For those of you who haven’t had the experience, it is nearly miraculous. Just a few cups of flour, some water, and a bit of salt. Plus a bit of starter – and 12 hours later you have amazing bread that fills the house with an aroma that makes it feel like home, and a chewy but air-bubble filled loaf that demands to be eaten right away.

As I reflect on the world and our people since October 7, I realize that we are the sourdough starter for every civilization and culture in which we make our homes. And Israel is the bowl in which our culture first began, and is preserved. Our Torah, our unique relation with G-d, our devotion to a fragile and fertile land, our passion for life, justice, and ethics… We bring these everywhere we go and somehow, miraculously, they inspire and infuse those around us to grow into a civilization that is richer, more diverse, and more productive.

The military is no different. When I first joined the Navy almost 39 years ago, I heard – as so many of you may have – “what are you doing? Jews don’t volunteer for the military?” Over the years I have met so many Jews in uniform, proud Jews who have made an outsized contribution to the success of our nation. Like the yeast in the sourdough, they have brought an understanding of the diversity of our country, they have been leaders in their units, some have been Lay leaders who ensure that there is the richness of Jewish life to nurture the hearts and souls of the other Jews around them. I will never forget my first visit to Stein Hall at the US Naval Academy, and seeing the exhibits of all of the Jews who have changed the Navy and made it what it is today. Albert Michaelson, the physicist who made the work of Albert Einstein possible and who was awarded the first Nobel Prize given to a military member in the US. Or Paul Shulman, who established Israel’s Navy after her independence. Or Hyman Rickover who imagined and created our Nuclear Navy program that is the heart of our submarine service and nuclear carriers. That is our past. But our future is in the hands of the two Jewish Midshipmen who were awarded the Rhodes Scholarship during my four years at the Academy. And the hundreds of other dedicated Jews whom I met, who educated their peers on the importance of the ideals of our faith and the need for religious tolerance and diversity for the survival of our nation. I have come to realize that the sense of service, honor, commitment to duty, professionalism, and patriotism that can be seen when military Jews gather is a strong yeast indeed!

At this time, when the future of our nation and the future of Israel are being tested more than at any time in my life, I know that no matter what happens, the Jewish people will continue to inspire many more loaves in the centuries to come. Because of people like those I have met during my service. Because of people like you.

LT Steven A. Ballaban was born in New York. He received his BA in English Literature from Vassar College in 1981. He continued his studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio and received his Masters of Hebrew Letters in 1985, and his Rabbinic ordination in June 1986. In 1989, he returned to Cincinnati, and earned a Masters of Philosophy in 1994 and a Doctor of Philosophy in 1995. Following a 20-year career as an educator, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity (honoris causa) by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He began his training as a clinical chaplain in 2011 and received Board Certification as a Clinical Chaplain from the Association of Professional Chaplains in 2013, and was the 5th chaplain to earn a Clinical Concentration in PTSD from the National Association of Veterans Affairs Chaplains in 2014. His publications include 14 articles in the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion and an article on the treatment of trauma in the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling.

He was commissioned as an Ensign (Chaplain Candidate Program Officer) in 1985 and entered Active Duty service in June 1986 following ordination. He continued his service as a drilling reservist until 1995, earning promotion to LCDR. His commission expired in 2002.

After receiving his credentials as a clinical chaplain at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Portland, OR, he returned to the Navy as a chaplain and was commissioned as a LT in August 2014. Following completion of training at Officer Development School in Newport, RI and Naval Chaplaincy School Basic Course at Fort Jackson in Columbia SC, he reported to Commander Naval Air Facility Atsugi Japan in December 2014. Afterwards, he served at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD from 2017-2022 as Second Battalion Chaplain, as well as the Rabbi at the Academy and also taught Leadership. Following his tour at the Naval Academy, he returned to the Reserve Component where he serves as the Chaplain at COMSUBLANT.
Chaplain Ballaban and his wife, Lynda, have been married for 17 years and together they have 7 children and 3 grandchildren.

Volume 78. Number 1. 2024