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

By Retired Chaplain Col. Jacob Goldstein
As I write this column, tectonic shifts and actions are occurring in our country. Our daily way of life has changed for many Americans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our schools are shut, synagogues are closed to prayer and other functions, people are confined to their homes, and our lives are turned upside-down in ways that are difficult to describe. How can we not go to synagogue to pray, attend a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a wedding, etc.? I wish to share with you an event that changed my life during my 38 years as the longest serving Chaplain in the U.S. armed forces.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I, along with millions of other Americans, was engaged in my daily routine. In an instant, our lives were changed by coordinated terrorist attacks, one at the World Trade Center in New York City. That day I received a message on my pager from the Headquarters of the New York National Guard, where I served as the Chaplain for the Joint Forces Command. The message called me and other unit ministry teams to the World Trade Center site. I saw the horrors of deaths and destruction in an area where hundreds were killed in the blink of an eye. The lives of all Americans were changed from that day forward. No longer were we the open society that existed up to the moment of those attacks. A new way of life started. There were additional security scanners in buildings, more intense airport screenings, and security guards in many buildings with questions asked of all who entered.

This brings me to where we are now in our lives, which have turned upside-down. Eventually after 9/11, our lives returned to a new normal as we adapted to a changed reality. Our country returned to its success, until this pandemic hit the entire world. Just as the Lord assured Moses in the desert, “Do not be fearful and tremble, for I the Lord am with you,” place yourself in the hands of Hakodesh Boruchhu, the Lord above, and continue to do good deeds, be charitable to one another, and engage in prayer as we Jews have always done in times of distress and danger.

I will conclude with an incident that happened to me at the World Trade Center site. On my third day there with almost no sleep, a fellow chaplain came to me and handed me a Yarmulke someone had found in the rubble. Instinctively I turned it over to see if it had an inscription inside. It said, “The wedding reception of Steven to Melanie, Sept. 10, 2001.” Imagine light in the darkness, a religious symbol for all to see. May the Lord guide us in all our deeds for good, heal those who are ill, and comfort the families who have lost dear ones during this time.

Volume 74. Number 2. 2020

By Captain Arnold E. Resnicoff, Chaplain Corps,
U.S. Navy (Retired)

On a Navy ship, before an important announcement over the public address system, the boatswain’s mate sounds the bosun’s call with a pipe/whistle, followed by the words, “Now Hear This.”

This sound to get our attention always reminded me of the shofar blast, and the words reminded me of the beginning of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel.”
In both these phrases, the word “hear” means much more than the physical act of hearing. The word is a command, closer to the old English word hearken. It means listen, understand, and obey. It is similar in some ways to another military phrase, “attention to orders.”

On the radio the word roger, which stood for the letter R in an older version of the phonetic alphabet, indicates message received. However, received means both heard and understood. Wilco (from “will comply”) adds the third layer, meaning the message was heard, understood, and will be obeyed. Although film actors often say “roger, wilco,” that would be redundant… although not as bad as the actors who say “over and out,” rather than choosing one or the other!

The idea that a military command includes all three of these ideas – hear, understand, and obey – is longstanding tradition, and the Navy reply, “aye, aye,” specifically affirms all three components: I hear, I understand, and I will obey. In other words, I have received the order, understand it, and will carry it out.

In the Bible, the Israelites at Mount Sinai, after receiving God’s commandments through Moses, respond “naaseh v’nishmah,” meaning “we will do and we will hear/understand.” That reply is the Biblical equivalent of “aye, aye” or “wilco.” However, commentators note that because the word do precedes the word understand, the theological and philosophical lesson is that we often hear more deeply and understand more fully only after we take action to incorporate the commandments into our lives.

On a ship, after “now here this,” we pay attention, preparing ourselves to understand the orders that come next, and then take action to follow those orders. In prayer, whether in synagogue or not, we should do the same when we hear the Shema. We should struggle to hear the words, to understand their meaning, and then to obey them through the way we live our lives.

When we hear “The Lord is our God,” that means that the false gods of ancient times, or the false gods of modern times like money or power, are not our God. But it also means we are not God. Truly hearing that one idea should change our lives.

When we hear “God is one,” we should understand that one God means we live in a world created with one plan. Ancient people who believed in many gods could not learn from history because they could not be sure the gods they dealt with on one day were the same ones as on another.
In a way, Jews introduced the idea of history with the idea of monotheism. We believe we can learn lessons of the past. We hear by searching for history’s lessons and then making those lessons a part of our lives.

“God is one” also teaches that God is uniquely whole, unlike human beings who are flawed and fragmented. Our nation’s founders dreamed that we should pursue “a more perfect union” when it came to our nation. We must do the same as individuals, pursuing integrity, the integration of our dreams, our words, and our actions, and trying to do a more perfect job of walking the talk.

In 1987, I was honored to give the prayer for the first United States Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust ceremony ever held in the Capitol Rotunda. These ideas drove the words of my prayer:
“ …if the time has not yet dawned when we can all proclaim our faith in God, then let us say at least that we admit we are not gods ourselves. If we cannot yet see the face of God in others, then let us see, at least, a face as human as our own.”

If we truly hear the words of the Shema, if we hearken to those words, struggling to understand their meaning with all our heart, our soul, and our might, with every fiber of our being, not only will our lives be changed, but so will our world.

Rabbi Resnicoff, a lifetime JWV member, began his Naval career as a line officer and then served in chaplain assignments including Command Chaplain, U.S. European Command, the “top chaplain” for military personnel of all services and all faiths in an area that at the time included 93 nations spanning 13 million square miles. Following retirement, he served as National Director 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. On October 23, 1983, he was present in Beirut during the Beirut Barracks bombing. His eye-witness report was read by President Ronald Reagan as a keynote speech in Washington, DC.

Volume 74. Number 1. 2020

By Rabbi Mark L. Winer, JWV National Chaplain

Chanukah gets a bad rap.
In the Jewish tradition, Chanukah is regarded as a minor holiday. Indeed, for hundreds of years, observant Jews were forbidden from celebrating Chanukah. Those who commemorated the Maccabees’ victory would receive no part of the “World to Come,” according to the Mishnah, the foundational compilation of the Talmud.

Only when the focus of Chanukah shifted to the miraculous oil lasting eight days, was the festival grudgingly admitted into Jewish observance. The story of the one day supply of oil which burned for eight days appears a few hundred years after the Mishnah in the Gemara.

Some modern Jews dislike Chanukah because many Jewish parents in contemporary America set up Chanukah as a Jewish counterpart to Christmas. No matter how wonderful Chanukah is, it cannot possibly hold a candle to what Christmas means to Christians. With the exception of Easter, Christmas is the most important holy day in the Christian year. Even eight days of presents and the most beautiful Chanukah Menorah cannot compete with what the Christmas tree, the creche, and the nativity mean to Christians.

Chanukah may not be so important in the Jewish tradition, nor does it really work as the Jewish version of Christmas, but Chanukah is a meaningful festival for modern Jews who delight in being loyal Jews and at the same time rejoice in being loyal patriots in their native and adopted lands. From my perspective, Chanukah is a particularly important holiday, for American, Israeli, and modern Jews everywhere in the world. It is especially powerful in its message to Jewish families in which one or more members have served in our nation’s armed forces.

Chanukah is the festival which most poignantly speaks to modern Jews. Like the Maccabees, we modern Jews stand up for our beliefs. We fight anti-Semitism wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. We stand up for Jewish rights here in America and in Israel. American Jews spearheaded protests which culminated in the liberation of Russian and Ethiopian Jews. Our people recovered from the worst genocide ever perpetrated against any people. We both re-established the State of Israel after 2,000 years of exile and built American Jewish life to a level of strength and depth of observance and study without parallel in Jewish history.

Like the Maccabees of the Chanukah story we balance a healthy traditionalism and a sensible enjoyment of modernity. Proud, strong, and free, we rejoice as heirs to the noble legacy of the Maccabees.

Volume 73. Number 4. 2019

This article is being written during the month of Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Each morning in Elul, at the conclusion of the weekday service, the Shofar is sounded. It is the view of the Rambam, the great rabbinic sage, that the blast of the Shofar serves us as a wake-up call, reminding us that Rosh Hashanah, also known in the Torah as the Day of Judgement, is just around the corner. This is a time that reaches out to us, calling for self-scrutiny and introspection in preparation for what is coming. Just as a marathoner does not run an event without warming up and stretching, Elul is the time given to us for a spiritual warm-up.

Those of us who have served in the armed forces are well acquainted with the difficulties and challenges that came with that service. A key for dealing with both routine and extraordinary crises is the quality of our resilience and our ability to cope and rebound. Those who take their religious faith seriously are endowed with “Spiritual Resilience.” As a Vietnam veteran, my Jewish faith helped me cope and overcome the often traumatic episodes I encountered in combat as well as in daily life.

The process of developing spiritual resilience goes hand in hand with introspection and self-scrutiny. The military provides us with a model in the form of tactics in the short-term and strategy for the long-term. The process consists of asking ourselves a few challenging questions such as: where am I now on life’s continuum, where do I want to be, and how do I plan to get there. This process must be undertaken in small and thoughtful bites. If my ultimate goal is too ambitious, it will only lead to frustration; if not ambitious enough, it will lead to complacency. This undertaking fits into another theme of the month of Elul, that of Teshuva or repentance. Teshuva is a four step process: identifying inappropriate behavior, regretting it, abandoning it, and then requesting forgiveness from The Almighty.

Elul is the month that comes with the opportunity to seek out and identify the special and unique role for which we were created. As the Talmud Sanhedrin teaches, every person must recognize that ‘the world was created for me, not to exploit it – but rather to provide the opportunity to make a contribution to the betterment of society and the human condition. Should we fail, the world will be bereft of that unique offering only we are capable of contributing.

May you and all those you hold dear be inscribed for the coming year in The Book of Life for a happy, healthy, prosperous, and meaningful New Year.

Volume 73. Number 3. 2019

What unbelievably frustrating times. On the one hand, we live in the freest country that has ever existed; despite its flaws. Flaws are not the surprise. After all, we are human. Freedom is. It’s not typical at all of governments to be by and for the people, yet that’s what the USA has been successful at for 240 years. But what the freedom has begotten as of late has not been the pursuit of happiness – the recurring shootings, including two at synagogues in the past year as well as 4 attempted arsons of synagogues the week I am writing this – show that something is very off. I don’t pretend to have the ultimate answers to these troubling issues, but perhaps we can take the moment to focus on three points that each of us can advance in our own lives, to better impact the world around us.

Self, mission, and action. Every individual in the armed services understands that one must have a clear identity and knowledge of our responsibilities. This leads us to focus in on our mission, and most importantly, to get it done. As Jews, both as individuals and as a nation, we need to reflect likewise, and perhaps, apropos of the holiday of Shavuot, we can use G-d’s introductory line, His mission statement to the Jewish people, to do so. “And you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Firstly, “And you shall be for Me”: This relationship with G-d might be a complicated one. But when we put aside the baggage and just take in the simple fact that G-d desires this relationship; that G-d cares about what I do and the choices I make, we have a better sense of self. This life is not just one of fulfilling personal bucket lists; it’s about recognizing that G-d put us here for a purpose.

That purpose is encapsulated first in the term “kingdom of priests.” The word Kohen (priest) actually means “one who serves,” but it is typically in the capacity of bringing others closer to G-d. The job of the Jew is to lift others higher. To assist others to understand that this world is not a jungle, it’s a place of meaning and purpose.

And finally, “A holy nation”: Sometimes the above is done in an active way, by actively influencing others, and sometimes that is done as a result of the Mitzvot you do in your own home, even by yourself. People around you will sense it, and see a person living a good, egoless, yet driven life, and they will be inspired to do the same.

Jewish war veterans understand these ideals more than most, having lived it in less than ideal circumstances. But now is the time for action. Tell your stories. Let’s touch people one by one, bringing one and all to recognize the preciousness of every moment of our lives, and to express that by spreading goodness, both within and without. We need to stand up strong and proud and spread the message: Live lives of goodness and purpose. That’s who we are, and what we are meant to do.
I wish you all a very joyous Shavuot!

Volume 73. Number 2. 2019

By Chaplain (COL) Larry Bazer

After almost 30 years in the military, I’m still amazed with the surprise of people learning that I’m actually a soldier or more specifically—National Guardsman, and a rabbi! I even get, “You mean the Israeli Army, right?” “No, I’m in the US Military. I’m a United States Army officer and Jewish Chaplain.”

Jewish have served in the American armed forces since the Revolutionary War. During war and peace time, rabbis have marched, sailed, or flown along with our brave American troops, caring for both Jews and Gentiles. There are Jewish chaplains on full-time active duty and others with both Reserve components, either Reserve or National Guard. Only the Army and Air Force have both Reserve and National Guard, Navy and Marines only have the Reserve.

What do Jewish chaplains do? Pretty much the same as any chaplain, regardless of religious denomination. We all care for the living, we also counsel, visit, or tend to those in need, or the most sacred work, honor the dead. We do both staff officer and clergy work. When I was deployed to Afghanistan the second half of 2011, I was on my commanding general’s special staff, and I was the only Jewish chaplain in the entire operational theater. One of the most memorable experiences I had was leading a Hanukkah Menorah lighting on my base, Camp Phoenix in Kabul. On a cold, wintery night, twenty-five people gathered around a five foot Hanukkiyah I had specially built. We were from all branches of service as well as government contractors. Not everyone who attended was even Jewish. I was proud to lead them in the blessings and songs. We finished up by feasting on latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). This scene was replicated all over the world on military bases or ships by Jewish chaplains or lay leaders. All were serving our nation as Jewish military personnel.

Presently, I’m serving on active duty at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, VA, after being a full-time pulpit rabbi for 25 years. For most of my military career I was part-time in both the Massachusetts and New York Army National Guard. I was a “weekend warrior…minus Shabbat.” I, like many Reserve Component rabbis, held other positions like pulpit, education, or hospital chaplaincy. When in uniform, I delivered prayers at many military ceremonies, or did counseling, or even gave the hamotzi at JWV events. In my present role, I’m overseeing the religious response mission of the National Guard’s domestic response or its State Partnership program with other nations’ armed forces. Luckily, I still get to teach some Jewish text or lead Hanukkah celebrations at the Guard Bureau or even at the Pentagon.

This coming April will be 30 years since I raised my right hand in the Jerusalem Consulate of the United States Embassy and took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States as an army officer. Ever since that sacred moment, I’m proud to wear the uniform of an US Army officer. I’m proud to wear the Jewish chaplain’s tablets on my uniform. I’m proud to be military combat veteran, and I’m proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Jewish War Vets, all of us, members at one time, of our United States military! For God and Country!

Chaplain (COL) Larry Bazer is the Deputy Director of the National Guard Bureau-Office of the Joint Chaplain. Prior to serving on active duty, he was the Joint Forces State Chaplain for the Massachusetts National Guard and the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Framingham, MA. He is still a proud member of Framingham/Natick JWV Chapter and MA Jewish War Veterans.

Volume 73. Number 1. 2019

 

Rabbi Elie Estrin is a Chassid in uniform and the bearer of the first beard in the US Air Force in 3 decades.

My first Chanukah in uniform was a dark one.   Only the day before our scheduled Chanukah party at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, we’d gotten the devastating news that our unborn baby had 3 of the 12 congenital heart defects considered critical. Expectation for survival?   Negative.

Yet the fact that this painful news was thrown at us on Chanukah was itself bolstering; and the fact that I’d share the light of the holiday with my brothers and sisters in uniform was quietly invigorating.   After all, doesn’t this particularly holiday remind us that the fight against all odds is not over before it starts?  And the warriors around me, with their variety of experiences, each with their own tale of survival, were all testament to that.

The Maccabees did not just fight for their religious freedom, and leave it at that.  They sought out that elusive jug of oil because they knew that even after the battles have been fought, more needs to be done.  Victory would ring hollow if not followed up by bringing light anew into the world.

Light, and fire in particular, is so heavily symbolic in Judaism: The flicker of the flame that strives ever upward.  The idea that light will continue infinitely, so long as it does not get blocked – but that the blockage itself reveals that the light is there.  The concept that just a small amount of light dispels a whole lot of darkness.  The Macabees understood all this, and that’s why it was critical to find a source of light; a pure source of goodness and light, immediately after the war and the bloodshed.  Pure oil, extracted from intense crush of the olive press, symbolizing the idea that the most crushing of experiences are themselves transformative; capable of lifting us to become sources of light.

Rabbi Elie Estrin

The fact that they found the oil was itself a miracle.  Perhaps the greater miracle was that they even searched at all.  But search they did; and they indeed found.  And the results were greater than what could have been expected: the legendary seven extra days of light.

Knowledge of this first fortified my mind, and over the next nine weeks until the baby was born, I struggled to wrestle it into my heart.  In my personal fight, the search for oil was both the elusive goal, as well as the weapon of choice.  In our case, we turned deep to our Jewish experiences, and struck oil within them: we fixed our mezuzot.  We held a communal gathering of Torah study. And we celebrated the life we had with the children we had as best we could; working hard to ensure Shabbat remained sacred, pleasant and uplifting.  And every time the doctors asked us for an end-of-life plan for the unborn child, we rebuffed them.

Eventually the baby was born.  His heart functioned not for 4 hours, but for five days, while we fought to get him medical care; eventually resulting in open-heart surgery on his sixth day of life. And this year, our own Chanukah miracle, our little Nissi, will celebrate his second Chanukah as a true source of light to all who see his beaming smile.

And while that original battle might be over, the fight to find and spread more light never is.

Wishing all a Chanukah of ever-increasing light!

Rabbi Elie Estrin

Volume 72. Number 4. Winter 2018