It is worth remembering that there are around 15,000 Jewish soldiers in the US armed forces and likely many more who choose to stay incognito. To raise public understanding of the role of Jewish chaplains in the armed services, Shabbat with our Troops, was held for Jewish community members and Jewish chaplains in training, over the May 14th weekend. With Memorial Day approaching, the five day event hooked into the theme of patriotism.
The Shabbat with our Troops Shabbaton was created by Rabbi David Becker, Director of the Office of Chaplain Services at Jewish Friends of the Armed Services (JFAAS). JFAAS are one of the organizations responsible for training, ordaining and endorsing Jewish Chaplains for the Department of Defense. Enthusiasm was plentiful at Beth Jacob, Pico Shul, Young Israel of Century City, Link Kollel and at the homes of local hosts who generously opened their homes to participants.
Across the weekend, events were packed with more than 250 people attending. Rabbi Becker was not surprised by the turnout, “This city has many Jewish residents who are connected to the military character of Israeli society. At the same time, this country has given freedom and liberty to Jews at a level that no other country has ever achieved. I am not surprised that the community is patriotic and supportive of the American Armed Forces. This is correct and inevitable.”
Jewish Chaplains work in all branches of the military, building Jewish communities on military bases throughout the world. They are also front line counselors who are supported by JFAAS in their Jewish Life programming. Their mission is also to ensure that Jewish rights and practices in the service of Ha’Shem are recognized and accepted in the US Armed Forces.
The Shabbaton included keynote speakers who lead conversations on a variety of subjects including, Suicide Awareness, Keeping Kosher in Non-Kosher environments, and Safeguarding Relations with Chaplains of other Faiths. Entertainment was provided by the vibrant Pico Shul Moshav Band who performed at Beth Jacob on Motzei Shabbos.
Rabbi Becker explained that there is a parallel to being a religious Jew and to being an American soldier. There is a need to start the day early, to eat in the right way, to speak with honor and to hold one’s personal morals and ethics at a meaningful level. He offered mesmerizing stories, “I was on a nuclear submarine with another Rabbi and there was a guy wearing a kippah. He had been deep under the water for three months and here he was, more clear in his religious beliefs than even before. We sent him matzah…Another time I was at Camp Pendleton and I was handling the Rosh Hashanah services. A large man approached me, wearing a black wetsuit. ‘When’s the shofar’ he asked in a deep resonating voice. I told him it was in 10 minutes or so. He replied, ‘I’ll stay. I had to show up. My Mom told me I had to hear it.’ ‘And what do you do?’ asked Rabbi Becker, ‘I do bad things to bad people’ was all he would say.”
Jewish Chaplains in the military are responsible for the spiritual and psychological well-being of every soldier which includes all religions, all kinds of people, men and women. “But it’s meaningful work because soldiers understand they have a higher purpose,” added Rabbi Becker. “I don’t have to bribe them with pizza. They want to come to services, to lunch and learn, to holiday events. We had 150 marines who showed up at Camp Pendleton one Shabbat, and they come back for more. Fort Hood has even more because there are many Jewish engineers working there.”
The work of an army chaplain is superbly challenging as they look to impart spiritual values that befit the warriors of the Armed Forces. The work of a Jewish chaplain is that much more sensitive because of the Jewish experience. Meanwhile, there are few Jews in the military and their communities are special, small and varied. Any support is meaningful and this was the heart of the message at Shabbat with our Troops.