By Chaplain (Major) Matt Friedman, California State Guard, 195th Wing/Joint Forces Head Quarters

It’s December – a month of happiness and trepidation. How do we get through it and more importantly, how can we get through it and be happy about it? I’ll start with the challenging element with childhood memories and move to the celebratory. Why that order? In ancient days the Rabbis, even when delivering the harshest of messages would always end with a positive idea and encouragement. That will come, but for now the trepidation.

Trepidation is a sense of concern with an element of uncertainty and perhaps even some fear. What is it about December? It is typically when Hannukah occurs. Hannukah with latkes, gelt, and of course lighting the Menorah (some use the term Hanukkiah), is a time of anticipation. Along with those happy elements, it also comes with its definition as the Jewish Christmas. Many Jewish people have childhood memories of explaining that it isn’t a Jewish Christmas, many of us don’t eat ham on December 25 (or any other day), and we feel a bit uncomfortable singing songs that have no meaning to us or perhaps are in opposition to our beliefs. Some of these memories are distressing.

As an elementary student I attended a school where there were only a few Jewish families. Most classes had one, two or sometimes three Jewish students. My first memory of Christmas was in kindergarten. A man arrived at the school in a fire truck. He had long white beard and red and white clothes. My classmates were very excited. They called out, “Santa, Santa.” I had no idea what was going on. Within 30 seconds they all lined up, so I followed them. One by one they would sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what toys they wanted for Christmas, and he would reward them with a candy cane. I also wanted a candy cane, so I came up with a fine list of toys. It never occurred to me that I would get any of those toys, but I got a candy cane, and I eagerly told my friends that I liked Santa. At some point during that month, we were ushered into the auditorium, and we were told we needed to learn a song that we would sing at an assembly. The song was called “Silent Night.” The words were strange to me, and I couldn’t understand why there was such attention being directed at a baby. What was the big attraction? There are babies everywhere and they usually cry and need to have diapers changed.

By fourth grade, the Jewish parents had convinced the principal that singing Christmas songs and making tree ornaments wasn’t of interest to us. Two events stand out. The Jewish kids were excused, much to our joy, from singing Christmas songs. The Muslim kids also asked to be excused. The principal turned down the request. At that moment it occurred to me that the principal, who was generally a very nice man, didn’t quite understand that it also did not make sense for the Muslim kids to sing the songs. That same year the teacher came up with a solution to our lack of interest in making tree ornaments. She crafted a flat Menorah out of black construction paper. For the next three weeks, Mark Ehrlich, the other Jewish kid in the class, and I cut up pieces of colored paper and glued them to the paper Menorah. It was boring, but we were avoiding ornaments and singing. As vacation time approached the teacher realized she had a dilemma. There were two boys, but only one (ghastly) art project. Immediately, we both offered to send it home with the other. The teacher was touched by our magnanimity! In her Solomonic wisdom she decided to cut it in half. We looked at each other and realized we were expected to take home our half of the Menorah. Both sets of parents found the entire incident ridiculous and hilarious.

While many of use share similar memories from our childhood, we can now view Hannukah as adults and adults in the military. Over the years I have contemplated how to think of the holiday and as a Jewish chaplain serving all faiths, how to make it relevant. While there are many themes and lessons from the Hannukah story, there is one that can resonate with everyone. Hanukkah is a story of optimism. During this time of year, the days are short and often gray. Some are deployed far from home. Hannukah takes the symbol of increasing light to give us a message of optimism and positivity. The rededication of the Temple reminds us that we can not only endure, but we can thrive.

Volume 76. Number 4. 2022

By Rabbi Aaron Stucker-Rozovsky

United States Marines Corporal Paul Fagundes, Lance Corporal Giovani Cruz, and Lance Corporal James May Jr. They weren’t shot by a Taliban sniper in Marjah, Afghanistan; they weren’t blown up by an IED in Baghdad; nor were they torn apart by an ISIS mortar in Syria. They met their end on July 4, 2010 when they drowned in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while serving with Fleet Anti-terrorism Team (FAST), Alpha Company, 6th Platoon.

I was serving in GITMO as a deployed Army National Guard Military Police Platoon Leader the day Fagundes, Cruz, and May died. There hasn’t been a Marine Corps birthday, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, or July 4th since, where I haven’t thought of these three young Marines, how their lives were so suddenly and sadly snuffed out, and how the lives of their dear families, friends, and hometowns were forever affected. Despite the deaths of these three young men, these Marines, despite the fact that there were soldiers in my company who worked 17 hour days for 6-7 days straight in extreme heat and humidity, despite the fact that we were tasked with securing one of the most high visibility and strategic detention facilities in the world, and despite the fact that we were separated from our loved ones for a year, when we got home, some fellow service members had the gall to tell us, “You know you weren’t on a real deployment, right?”

How hurtful, how belittling, how shameful, how flatly untrue.

I have been deployed overseas twice, to both Guantanamo and Afghanistan, and I am equally proud of both deployments – the people I served with, the missions I was on, the units whose patch I have the privilege of wearing – all of it.

During World War II, the 150th Infantry Regiment of the West Virginia Army National Guard was deployed overseas. They didn’t fight at Salerno, Normandy, or Bastogne, and they didn’t storm Guam, Leyte, or Okinawa. Their role was protecting the Panama Canal. Imagine how much more drawn out, how much bloodier an Allied victory would have been without the canal and the vital link it provided between two theaters of war. Being such a linchpin, a prized jewel in the American defense enterprise, someone had to defend it from would-be saboteurs, Nazi spy rings, prowling U-boats, and even possible German and Japanese air raids, and these proud Mountaineers did just that. These West Virginians were part of the peak strength of 119,000 American service men and women defending the Canal and the Caribbean in December 1942. I wonder though, if when these soldiers came home after the war, they too received the same reception that my fellow Guardsmen and I received when we returned in 2010.

In the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), specifically 25:17, we are commanded to abide by the following decree: “Do not wrong one another.” Traditional sources and commentators such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah have said this means not harming one another through speech. Additionally, Leviticus 19:16 instructs us, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people.” Maimonides again tells us that this means that we are not to speak ill of others. Finally, Leviticus 19:17, proclaims “thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart.” Maimonides comments here too that this means we are not to embarrass others.

We as veterans have a solemn duty and a moral responsibility to uplift all our fellow veterans and service men and women, regardless of branch, service component, length of service, rank, MOS, or rating, and to honor them for their service, sacrifice, and commitment. Anything less would be hillul HaShem (a desecration of G-d’s holy name). Likewise, no one should ever feel the need to hide or be ashamed of their service because it wasn’t well-known or didn’t have a movie or film made about it. Why? Because the defense of our great nation takes all of us. Protecting our country is a team effort and each of us is an essential member of that team.

Perhaps there is no more fitting conclusion than this. At the memorial service for Fagundes, Cruz, and May, Major Winston Tierny, commander of the Marine Security Force Company Guantanamo Bay said, “Our hearts were broken this past Sunday by a horrible tragedy as we lost three young American fighting men. While not lost in combat, they were lost in the defense of our nation.” These words should serve as a poignant reminder to us all in honoring the service of our fellow veterans.

Bizrat HaShem we may always remember to celebrate and venerate all veterans and service men and women, no matter the time or place where they served!

Rabbi Aaron Stucker-Rozovsky has been in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve for over 16 years as both a Military Police Officer and Chaplain. He was deployed to Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He currently serves as the Deputy Command Chaplain for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and holds the rank of Major. In his civilian career, he is the Rabbi of Beth El Congregation in Winchester, Virginia. He and his wife Eliza have three cats.

Volume 76. Number 3. 2022

We live in a time of increasing polarization, where people don’t talk to friends and family who see the world differently. We seem to be moving farther away from each other, responding with anger, hate, and hurt, when we are hurt ourselves. But even in these times, I have hope, for I see a way, based on our sacred texts, to build bridges of understanding and help heal our communities, one person at a time.

When I see the hatred and intolerance all around, I go back to the beginning, to the creation of humans. Genesis 1:26 states, “Then G-d said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.’” We are all created in G-d’s image, b’tzelem Elokim, even those we disagree with, even those whose beliefs seem opposite to our values.

But wouldn’t it be easier if we surrounded ourselves with those like us? Isn’t that what we’re doing? Or trying to make others in our own image? This is not what G-d desires or planned.
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 teaches,

And [Adam was created singly] to proclaim the greatness of the Blessed Holy One, for a human being stamps many coins with one die and they are all alike one with the other, but the King of the kings of kings, the Blessed Holy One, has stamped all of humanity with the die of the first person, and yet not one of them is like her fellow.

How is a human being’s uniqueness a manifestation of the greatness of G-d? It is not simply because of G-d’s ability to create different people from a single model. There is a deeper meaning. We are different from each other—in the way we look, think, and believe—through the design of the Infinite. G-d could have stamped out people who all were the same. But that wasn’t what G-d chose to do. G-d chose to create unique individuals. We come from the same stamp, from the first human being, to teach us that despite our differences, we all come from the Divine. When we remember this in our interactions with those we disagree with, then there is the possibility of connecting and building bridges.

In our polarization, we often voluntarily separate ourselves from those we disagree with, and it is difficult to build bridges with those we don’t interact with. We need to expose ourselves to people who are different than we are and approach our differences with curiosity, always remembering that they, too, are created b’tzelem Elokim.

In our service in the military, we have a unique chance to live this on a daily basis. No matter when or where you served, you interacted and worked with people very different from you. Think of a time when in these interactions you remembered that they were created from the same stamp and strive to understand them and help them understand you. Take that experience and bring it to your civilian life. Seek out those who are different from you, approach them with dignity and curiosity deserving of one created by G-d. Join me in this holy endeavor.

Volume 76. Number 2. 2022

By Rabbi Levi Welton

Long before I had the honor of serving in the United States Air Force, I was just a boy in Troop 613, the local Jewish Boy Scouts of America chapter in Berkeley, California. It was founded by George Brummer, Lenny Berman, and my childhood Rabbi Ferris. We met regularly on the second floor of the Berkeley Chabad House. This was how I came to know Berman, or Scoutmaster Lenny. Although he hadn’t been a scout as a boy, Scoutmaster Lenny taught our troop to cherish outdoorsmanship and do a good turn daily. He also made all of us get the Ner Tamid Jewish merit badge, telling us we had to be proud Jewish Boy Scouts.

Berman was a disciplined, bristly-bearded software developer who walked over four miles every Shabbos to attend services at the Chabad House (Orthodox Jews don’t use cars on Shabbos because driving is considered a violation of the 39 categories of prohibited melachos or work). Nor did he do it alone. He was accompanied by his wife, daughter, and three sons.

At the crack of dawn on school days, Berman would wake up his children and teach them Torah and Talmud. Then they’d head off to public school. In 2012, when President Obama’s ambassador to Israel toured the largest Yeshiva in the world, the prestigious Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, he was photographed studying Torah with Eitan Berman, my former scout-mate.

I never made it to the rank of Eagle Scout. I spent way too much time having fun at the Scout Camp rifle range. I got a couple of merit badges, like the woodworking one and the leatherwork one, but I did it because I thought it was fun, not because I was competitive about achieving Eagle status. Nevertheless, Berman gave me a solid Boy Scout education. He taught me how to use a compass, which comes in handy as Jews must face Jerusalem when praying three times a day. He also instructed our Troop in the art of pitching a tent, packing a sleeping bag, and safely kindling a fire from scratch. Most of all, he constantly lectured us on what it means to have Scout Honor and do my best to do “my duty to G-d and my country.”
Unfortunately, my best wasn’t always good enough. For example, I failed to get the swimming merit badge. I badly wanted it because that badge allowed a scout to use the kayaks at the camp lake. I might have succeeded had it not been for my lanky chicken legs, pencil-thin arms, and the sharks. Well, not real sharks as I was swimming hundreds of miles inland. But my overactive imagination kept interpreting every oblong shadow underwater as a Great White gleefully zooming towards me to the ominous soundtrack of “Jaws.”

So, after a lot of frenzied splashing, I was told to get out and dry myself off with a towel. Apparently, in my zeal to escape the sharks, I swam in the completely wrong direction and had a second chance to jump back in and try again. I shook my head with a definitive no and made a silent pact with the sharks that I would never again step into their turf as long as they wouldn’t step on mine. To this day, both parties have honored this arrangement.
But I’m getting lost in the brush of my understory and must return to the trailhead of the narrative, Scoutmaster Lenny. I want to tell you how he imprinted upon me the meaning of honor. It happened when our troop was deep in the forest, camping with hundreds of other troops.
One morning, it was our troop’s turn to raise the flag in front of the entire assembly. We had practiced with Berman for an hour the night before. But I was still nervous. A sea of eyes stared at us with laser focus. Eitan and I marched in tandem next to each other, gripping the sides of the flag, and trying to remember all the instructions our scoutmaster had drilled into our brains. My hands trembled as we hoisted the flag.

Suddenly, the bugler, who was also our assigned guide, sputtered. He rushed over to us.

“The flag is upside down,” he whispered in horror. He snatched the halyard from me. I frantically looked up. The great grizzly bear of the California flag lying flat on her back with four paws fluttering awkwardly upside down in the wind for all to see.

Snickers echoed around the grassy meadow. Shame burned on my cheeks and for the next three days, we were the laughingstock of the Boy Scouts. I remember spending most of the time studying the tips of my sneakers and avoiding eye contact with anyone outside my troop.

Then, on the dawn of the third day, Yossi Ferris, the rabbi’s son, was called up in front of the entire assembly for an honor. He had achieved the highest score at the rifle range and was given the marksmanship award. He marched up – proudly wearing his yarmulke for all to see— and received his accolades and his trophy, a box of chocolate M&M’s. But Yossi wasn’t the only one who held his head high. Our entire troop did. From then on, no one laughed at us. Our dignity was restored.

But what I remember now was how, during those three days after our epic flag-failure, Scoutmaster Lenny made us march to reveille as if we were his children marching to Shul on Shabbos. He didn’t utter a word about our failure and walked among the other Scout Leaders with confidence, as if nothing had occurred. I’m sure he noticed the sneers and smirks of the other kids. But he made us march and made us endure it, one step at a time. In this way, he taught me that honor means you keep marching forward, even when your flag is upside down.

In comic books, heroes are clean-shaven and wear red capes. In real life, heroes need neither a costume nor a cape. They can have a bristly beard and simply show a child it’s ok to make a mistake. On that fateful flag day, Berman showed me that I didn’t need to be an Eagle to fly.

Levi Welton holds degrees in science, education, and film. Currently, he works as a rabbi, physician assistant, and a reserve chaplain in the United States Air Force, attached to the 436th Airlift Wing of Dover Air Force base.

Volume 76. Number 1. 2022

By Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff
Two recent statements by former and current military leaders made news when they revealed vastly different visions for our nation.

We should take pride in the fact that the United States is unusual precisely because we are a nation that was not founded based on a shared faith, race, or ethnicity, but rather on shared support of ideas: self-evident truths such as equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Asserting that diversity is one of our strengths, current Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Berger announced a plan called Talent Management 2030, to make the Marine Corps more diverse “to reflect America, to reflect the society we come from.”

Berger has shared his view that America’s strength lies in its diversity, and the same is true for our military. He understands that “we don’t all think alike” but we are stronger because of that truth, not weaker. We have learned different lessons because as he said, “we didn’t come from the same backgrounds.”
Jewish teaching affirms this idea. We’re taught that G-d’s word is like a hammer striking an anvil, creating many sparks. Depending on our backgrounds and experiences, we understand the light and the brilliance of sparks that others will miss. The challenge is to share the insights we glean as individuals, so that we all might benefit as a community, a people, and a world.

Religious diversity is a particularly strong value for me because my life has been touched and enriched by the values and visions of so many separate religious traditions. Judaism has much wisdom to share with others, often based on our past experience as slaves and tied to that, our eternal belief in freedom, but also lessons from our history in the wilderness and search for a promised land.

Many of my non-Jewish friends have been struck by Jewish insights, including those gleaned from the way Jewish tradition finds wisdom in the connections between words and events. The time of the Omer, for example, linking Passover and the exodus from Egypt to Shavuot and receiving the commandments at Sinai, can help us understand the tension between rights and responsibilities.

From Passover we learn we are not slaves, but from Shavuot we learn we are not gods; from Passover we learn what to stand against, but from Shavuot, what to stand for; from Passover we learn about our rights, but from Shavuot we learn about our responsibilities.

I started my Navy career in Vietnam, on a ship that became the first commissioned vessel to enter the waters of Cambodia. As I faced fear and wrestled with issues of life and death, I often struggled with the war within that would define me as a human being – the battle between the better and lesser angels within me. During that time, a Christian chaplain, Father Les Westling, ultimately inspired me to make the decision to become a rabbi.

When I reentered the Navy as a chaplain, his footsteps were the ones I tried to follow.

From him and other non-Jewish chaplains, I learned lessons that have guided me ever since. I learned the lesson of Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel everywhere. Use words when absolutely necessary.” That teaching, that we share our lessons of hope and faith primarily through our presence and through our kindness, more than through our words alone, has been a guiding principle of my life.

When serving as a chaplain for the 6th Fleet, I was stationed onboard the USS Puget Sound, with the responsibility to visit all ships in the Mediterranean, as well as U.S. military personnel assigned to the peace-keeping force in Beirut. During my many visits to Beirut I saw a landscape filled with foxholes and bunkers representing the multi-national force personnel, along with those of Israelis and Lebanese.

What struck me about this experience was that in midst of foxholes filled with people representing one group or another, from the warring Lebanese Christians and Muslims to the predominantly Jewish forces of Israel’s IDF, we Americans had what I called interfaith foxholes. Thinking back on that time, amid religious wars around the world, I have said that if the world had more interfaith foxholes, perhaps we’d have less need for foxholes and have more room for faith.

On October 23, 1983 at 6:22 a.m., a suicide bomber in a van full of explosives attacked the American component of the multi-national force. The blast demolished a building 75 yards from where I was staying. Father George Pucciarelli, the Catholic chaplain assigned to the Marine Amphibious Unit, grabbed his purple uniform stole, and put it around his neck, preparing for the certainty that he would be administering last rights in the face of so many wounded and dying.

We lost 241 Americans that day. I remember how desperately we needed the medical assistance that would eventually arrive, a need made worse because many of the sailors who died were corpsmen.

We all did what we could until more help arrived. I tore my t-shirt apart to use pieces to wipe dirt and blood from the faces and bodies of the wounded and then I used my kippa, until I lost it in the rubble.

When we had a moment to breathe, Pucciarelli saw my head was uncovered, and he came over to me, ripping a piece of his camouflage uniform off so that I could use it as a temporary, makeshift kippa. I remember what he said to me – that in Lebanon, where every religion was fighting every other religion, he wanted our personnel to remember not only that American chaplains reached out to everyone, regardless of religion, regardless of whether anyone wounded even had a religion, but through the symbolism of the stole around his neck and the kippa on my head, he wanted our men to remember that we represented different faiths but worked together, side-by-side.

At that point in America, a debate had been raging about whether Jewish personnel could wear kippot with their uniforms. Normally Jewish chaplains were allowed to wear them, but it was unclear when it came to others, and often the default assumption was that they could not. For two years, the religious apparel amendment that would officially allow head-coverings for religious reasons had failed to pass Congress. After the story of Pucciarelli’s creation of the “camouflage kippa” was told in both the House and the Senate, and printed in the Congressional Record for both chambers, the amendment passed.
What I think happened was that many civilian and military leaders had been opposed to the idea because it conflicted with military uniformity. The story changed their minds. They saw uniformity as only a means to an end, and the end was unity, a unified effort to defend our freedoms, including freedom of religion. Cherishing our diversity could protect us from becoming one more nation torn apart by differences.

The religious apparel amendment laid the foundation for a series of instructions and directives outlining policies for religious accommodation within the military services. Some branches of the military still use that title, but as of September 1, 2020, the latest Department of Defense instruction chose a new title, religious liberty in the military services. For me, that instruction recognized our policies were not simply accommodating needs.

Instead, we were strengthening our freedoms, our rights, and ultimately, protecting the liberty we in the military defend.

Religions often have different ultimate visions, and those visions are mutually exclusive from those of other faiths. Therefore, our lesson must be that when it comes to interfaith cooperation, the more we focus on the end of days, the more we’ll disagree. But the more we focus on the end of today, to make today a better day for the sick, the hungry, for those suffering from pain or fear, the more we’ll agree. Then, we can all roll up our sleeves and work together. For me, that’s the secret behind the success of the military chaplaincy. We take strength from our diversity, then unite to help others, and do some good for our world.

At a time when religious tension, hostility, and even conflict are far too evident throughout our world, we must share the vision of interfaith foxholes, and the knowledge that our differing backgrounds, experiences, teachings, and faiths can strengthen and enrich us all.

I am inspired by the wisdom of Berger’s new vision. Perhaps the story of the camouflage kippa will become a part of that vision. In the meantime, I pray that the men and women of the U.S. Marine Corps grow stronger through their renewed respect for diversity as a strength. May they be ever faithful to that vision. May that vision and that strength be a blessing for our military, our nation, and our world.

Rabbi Resnicoff is a life member of JWV who began his Naval career as a line officer in Vietnam and with Naval Intelligence in Europe before rabbinical school and ordination. As a rabbi he served in chaplain assignments around the world, culminating in the position of Command Chaplain, U.S. European Command. Following retirement, he served as National Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee and Special Advisor for Values and Vision to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.

Volume 75. Number 4. 2021

Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe.

As we deliberate this morning and plan for the future of the Jewish War Veterans of America, let us pause and reflect on both the coming year as well as the year past. The coming Rosh Hashanah conveys a powerful and meaningful message for all attending this important JWV event.

The words Rosh Hashanah mean more than only a New Year. The wisdom of the Hebrew language conveys that Shanah has additional and more subtle meanings. The word Shanah can also mean to repeat or to change.

As we reflect on the events of the past year as well as on our own behavior, we are called upon to engage in introspection and to ask ourselves what is worth repeating and continuing into the coming year and what must be changed for the coming year. This message calling for the contemplation of the need for change or repetition applies not only to individuals, but to organizations as well.

The Shofar that was sounded here this morning at the opening of this session will again be sounded on Rosh Hashanah. The Shofar must serve, recalling the words of Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, as a wakeup call to all who hear its penetrating sounds.

The Shofar provides a resonating message from the Ribono Shel Olam, the Commander of the Universe to the U.S. “Commander in Chief ” and to all who command and aspire to command.

Ksiva V’Chasima Tovah

May you and all you hold dear be inscribed in the coming year for a sweet, happy and healthy New Year.

Volume 75. Number 3. 2021

By Rabbi Elie Estrin

We are entering into a period known as the three weeks, which is the time between the anniversary of the breach of the walls of Jerusalem and the eventual destruction of the Temple. Our Sages tell us that the destruction of the Temple was the result of baseless hatred, and the history of the period bears that out. In short, there were several political camps at the time, pacifists, fanatic nationalists, and moderates. When the dialogue between them broke down, so did any chance of resolving the issues, and the result was disastrous.

But when considering that history, one may question why the Sages describe this as baseless hatred? After all, these were opinions based in clear views, each with their intellectual grounding. It would only make sense that all involved would be at odds, and even vehemently so, considering the desperate circumstances. Can that be considered baseless hatred?

As I reflect on this story and its eternal relevance to us, I think we have neglected the second word in the statement, hatred. Once the parties were split in hatred, they became completely dysfunctional. Vehemence, passion, and fiery dialogue is understandable, but when we descend into hatred of the other side of our own team, we’re in big trouble. Ultimately, any such self-inflicted injury has no excuse. It is truly baseless. Blame who you want, but once the Temple is afire, all the finger-pointing is irrelevant.

It is clear our country needs to take the lessons of this history to heart, and fast. Even worse, our Jewish community and its leadership has allowed the circumstances to drive deep wedges between us. Left, right, and moderates are no longer on talking terms, and anti-Semites have crawled out of their holes to take advantage of the breaches. As veterans, we know we need to step up when the time calls for it. Now is the time for us to urgently repair those bridges and create unity despite differences of opinion. Let us stand up with Jewish pride and strength, and arm-in-arm declare openly and clearly: Am Yisrael Chai!

Rabbi Estrin is a chaplain with the rank of Captain-Promotable in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, attached to the 6th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill Air Force Base. In his civilian job, Estrin serves as the Military Personnel Liaison for the Aleph Institute, providing chaplains and Jewish service members with religious support, and is the editor of the Jewish-American Warrior magazine, as well as the author of a just-published book, “Of Medicine, Miracles and Mindsets,” released by Mosaica Press.

Volume 75. Number 2. 2021

By Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz

Like many Jews, Passover is my favorite holiday. The Seder is a fun family night filled with great food and lively conversation. Preparations for Passover force me to do a good spring cleaning. Though I dislike the process, I love the result. The weeklong celebration, bookended with holy days, gives me time to reflect on the meaning of Passover and the values embedded within it.

Our Celebration of Spring, one of the alternate names of Passover, is aligned with the seasons of the year. The connection between Passover and springtime is further reinforced with this blessing that can first be recited during the month of Nisan, the month in which Passover falls, upon seeing fruit trees blossom. “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made nothing lacking in this world, and created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees for humans to enjoy.”

Also, through the exodus from Egypt, the Passover story, the Israelites become reborn as a free people.
I find the connection between Passover and rebirth inspiring. It encourages me to look around and identify other places where this rejuvenation is taking place. Luckily, in my position as Director of Operations at JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, I don’t have to look far to find Jewish life in the military constantly in a state of renewal and rededication. I will share just a few examples of the new buds of Jewish life popping up around the globe at military installations.

• Every Jewish community knows that educating the next generation through Hebrew schools is a must. Yet service member families expect that dedication to country comes at the cost of Jewish education for their children. JWB is at the forefront of changing this reality. This year, we piloted five Hebrew school classrooms, with a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and an expansion to more installations is planned for this fall. Soon, every Jewish child growing up in an active-duty military family will have access to their Jewish history, culture, and values.

• Military Jewish lay leaders take on the responsibility of leading the Jewish community in the absence of a local Jewish chaplain. While there are more than 60 lay leaders serving around the globe, the recruitment of lay leaders has been sporadic. This spring, two JWB Chaplain candidates, Ensigns Stefanie Gedan and Alex Hamilton, are facilitating a Lay Leadership Training Course. Over 20 new lay leaders are participating. This is the largest influx of JWB lay leaders at one time, since World War II.

• JWB chaplains remain the number one facilitators of meaningful Jewish life throughout the military. As we enter our second year of a COVID Passover, JWB chaplains are reaching out and creating spiritual Passover celebrations for more Jewish service members and their families than in-person gatherings could ever reach. Through video conferencing and recorded Seders, no Jewish military family will miss out on Passover this year.

At each Passover Seder table we place a filled cup for Elijah, in the hope that the prophet will visit our homes, heralding the coming of a brighter tomorrow. At JWB, while we too anticipate Elijah’s visit, we know that JWB chaplains and lay leaders, along with our Hebrew School teachers, are bringing forth the blossoms of Jewish life today.

Rabbi Tracy J. Kaplowitz, Ph.D., is the director of operations of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council®, a signature program of JCC Association of North America. Rabbi Kaplowitz served nine years as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. She was attached to Dover AFB, DE, where she supported the Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs in caring for our country’s fallen heroes during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Kaplowitz was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and holds a doctorate in sociology of education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Volume 75. Number 1. 2021

By Chaplain Rabbi (CPT) David Becker, USARCENT
Jewish Theater Chaplain

On a recent trip in the skies over Iraq and Kuwait, I had the opportunity to become well acquainted with the flight crew of the C-130 I was traveling on. As a chaplain I find it natural to connect to service members, so upon landing at a waypoint where we were stuck for several hours, I took the opportunity to get to know the crew. For his part, the Captain parked the C-130 on the tarmac, lowered the ramp, and there we laid (all 10 of us) sunbathing beneath the Iraqi sun.

A C-130 is basically the military’s bus and workhorse of the sky. It has a long track record of safety and mission success. Six crewmembers are required to fly and navigate a C-130. The flight deck crew consists of the Captain, First Officer, Crew Chief, and the Navigator. In the back of the aircraft there are two Loadmasters who manage cargo, weight distribution, safety systems, and passengers. I inserted myself on a bench at the back of the flight deck and had a clear view ahead and to the sides of the plane. The experience did not disappoint. Once the plane took off, I could walk the deck. From the cockpit, when the plane banks and turns, the line where the ground meets the sky becomes alarmingly horizontal. Skirting around clouds and weather systems with the sun’s rays peeking through is just about one of the most beautiful natural scenes I have ever seen, if not bumpy. Combat diving, a reality in a combat zone, takes you on a spinning and plunging trajectory towards the ground in an accelerated way! Leveling out at a scant few hundred feet and landing on a short runway, one wonders what just happened!

As I watched these outstanding professionals operate this aircraft with ease and a comradery that was both serious and yet warm, spirituality set in and a concert of unity played out before my eyes.

Let me explain what I was feeling. The most beautiful music springs forth from a unified effort. On the C-130 the Captain is the head of this aircraft. He relies on all other departments to feed him information so he can command, much like a conductor who directs music in an orchestra. The First Officer functions as a secondary back-up for the Captain. He also monitors essential flight systems, radar, communications, and countermeasures. In a real way, this officer is the concertmaster responsible for musical quality at the concert. There is a navigator, who inputs direction which he feeds into a computer allowing the Captain to fly along a highway in the sky. The navigator is much like an orchestrator, who transposes the composer’s music into a coherent flow for play. Next is the crew chief. As a senior enlisted airman, his role is to troubleshoot, inspect, calibrate, mix fuel, perform engine run-ups, and adhere to checklists. The crew chief is the ultimate stage manager concerned with the overall health of the orchestra. Every properly run orchestra requires a symphony manager. These people are charged with making sure the math makes sense, and the business of the orchestra is healthy. In a C-130 the symphony master and his assistant are called Loadmasters. The entire Raison d’être of the flight is to deliver cargo and personnel to an intended destination. Loadmasters ensure the cargo and people are safe and secure. Lastly, there is the plane, the seventh entity in this equation, so obviously akin to the orchestral sections. The plane is roaring to fly, it just needs the other six entities to give it direction.

Observing from the flight deck, I was indeed witnessing something remarkable in its seamless purpose. The components were indeed a concert of unity!

This evolved into the subsequent thought. As Chanukah is upon us, my thoughts turned to the Holy Menorah! It occurred to me that I was riding on a Menorah! Not necessarily the Chanukiyot that we will light in our homes, but the Menorah created mikshah achas, formed (or beaten) of one piece. The one Moses our Beloved Teacher formed out of one massive chunk of gold. This original Menorah stood in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and the first great Temple as a testament of G-d’s, balance, unity, beneficent kindness, and ever giving nature. We were meant, as we are today on Chanukah, to light that Menorah and bringing G-d’s perfection of unified light into the world. Six perfect yet separated golden lamps on each side of a center stalk, mirroring each other in sublime beauty and decoration! The center stalk rising above the rest. Shining forth from a position just outside the Kodesh Ha’kadoshim (Holy of Holies) the Menorah was meant to remind us of the seven days of creation. Six days of creation, one day of perfect rest… seven. Six crew members and one plane… seven. Balance!

Inside that cockpit, I got to wondering, why do we celebrate Chanukah? We are often told that the great miracle of Chanukah is that when the Maccabees re-entered the Temple after a prolonged war with the Seleucid Greeks, they could not locate a supply of oil to rekindle the Menorah, save one jug. Miraculously, the jug lasted eight days until additional supplies could be restocked. Yes, this is a miracle, but is it really worthy of celebrating for time immemorial? If such a miracle was so magnanimous, then perhaps we should celebrate in perpetuity the Well of Miriam or the falling of the walls of Jericho. Clearly, we do not. We are also told that the more important miracle of Chanukah is the outstanding and unlikely military victory of Matisyahu and his sons who with the strength of character, wisdom, courage, military tactics, and a lot of divine assistance, overcame an empire in just three years. Both are certainly viable explanations for our celebration.

For your consideration, I would like to submit to you a deeper perspective. Chanukah is the ultimate holiday of unity and its essence is a restoration of balance. The Menorah, a perpetual holy instrument of divine unity, was rekindled and lasted those eight days specifically because balance was restored to the Jewish people. Finally, after many years of war, internal division, ethnic hatred, and religious intolerance Judaism was restored and freed from the Hellenistic grasp. The cry of Judah the Maccabee, Me La’Hashem Ay’li (who is for G-d rally to me), was a call for re-unity, and when he and the Jewish people united and overcame the enemy, when the spirituality and safety of our people was restored, the Menorah became that symbol of G-d’s light once again. Balance was restored. This is why we celebrate Chanukah – because of this restoration of balance that resulted in a celebration of the concert of G-d’s unity.

I write these words to you from far away and with no small degree of longing for my family and prayers for what I am sure will be better times. While we acknowledge that Chanukah 2020 comes on the heels of a year that has been just ghastly, let us not forget why we light this Menorah. As Chanukah did for our Jewish ancestors, may this Chanukah bring us a restoration of balance. May we bring G-d’s light into the world, dispelling darkness. And may we all merit to see the ultimate act of unification, the coming of Mashiach and peace for all.

Now that is a concert worth celebrating!
Chanukah Sameach!
Happy Hannukah!

Volume 74. Number 4. 2020

By Chaplain Lt. Col. Yaakov Bindell
New Jersey was one of the early states to get hit with the coronavirus. As the disease spread across the state, the New Jersey National Guard was swiftly called to action. As the State Command Chaplain of New Jersey, within just a few weeks, my job duties suddenly changed from training and developing chaplains, to leading chaplains through one of the biggest challenges this country has seen in over 100 years. I quickly organized groups of chaplains to go visit soldiers and airmen at COVID-19 testing sites, field hospitals, mortuary affairs operations, veteran homes, and long-term care facilities across the state. While I could share countless stories of heroism during the early stages of the pandemic, I feel most inspired by how our service members helped their fellow veterans during the pandemic.

During the early stages of the pandemic, there were many deaths at veteran homes across the state. While soldiers tried to help in any way they could, seeing our state’s heroes make their last stand in the face of COVID-19 took a heavy toll on the soldiers assigned to the homes. In order to make sure the veterans who died during this tough time were properly honored, several soldiers working in a dementia unit called Old Glory provided flags in honor of the veterans.

But these soldiers and airmen didn’t just go out of their way to make sure the dead received their due honor, they also provided assistance for the living veterans at the homes. At the beginning of the pandemic, for safety reasons, visitors were not allowed to see their family members in person. After several lonely months of not being able to see their family and relatives, veterans were finally given a special day when they would be allowed to see family, albeit only from a window. This day was hugely important for the veterans. Until then, their companions were their adopted military helpers and staff. Despite only being able to see family members through a thick window barrier, soldiers and airmen stepped up to make it the best experience possible. They helped veterans communicate with their families by making sure all cell phones were ready and that windows were clean so residents could see their family members clearly. You could feel the excitement of that momentous day from the firsthand account of one chaplain. “This mission was so encouraging to the soldiers and airmen. It was like they were walking on air. And for good reason! The event wasn’t scheduled to take place until the end of the day, but the whole day was full of excitement and preparation.”

The connection between service member and veteran has always been strong but this pandemic has brought us even closer than we could have imagined. For instance, when Memorial Day arrived after months of little human contact, the ceremonies held at the veterans homes were powerful and emotional events for service members and veterans alike. As military members and veterans, we remember the dead and fallen every year, but this year is different. We have lost so many heroes to COVID-19. However, the virus has not only taken our veterans. Many others have died in this most unusual and surreal war. Something that makes this war different than the wars we as service members are used to is that non-service members and family members are in just as much danger as the servicemembers themselves.

I have also been impacted by the deaths this war has caused. The morning I was asked to write this article, I found out the mother of a soldier had passed away. By noon that same day, I had to make a shiva call to a friend of mine whose father had passed away. That evening I got a call that a cousin of mine had passed away. It has been a tremendously difficult year of death and sickness. I hope and pray that the Jewish New Year brings health and recovery to our great nation. The High Holidays are almost upon us. This year, let us pray for life and good health. And at this year’s Yizkor service, let us remember and honor those who have left us. Shana Tova and may you all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Volume 74. Number 3. 2020