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Rabbis Among Warriors

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Imagine, “A whole minyan of rabbis at a religious service in Germany!”

The minyan, here at a conference of military chaplains, was “first” of its kind, according to Rabbi David Lapp, retired army colonel-chaplain and director of JWB’s Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy, the endorsing agency of all Jewish military chaplains for the U.S. Department of Defense.

We had come to do another “first,” the first reportorial depth-probe of the post-World War II Jewish chaplaincy in NATO-Europe and the “Jewish dimension” in the “new” U.S. volunteer army, navy and air force overseas.

It is a different “congregation” from any the American Jewish community in civilian life knows, sees or probably even thinks about–with the exception of JWB-CJC, which is charged with the responsibility for endorsing rabbis who seek commissions in the U.S. military chaplaincy and which is involved and concetned with the U.S. Jewish military community worldwide.

JWB shoulders a far-flung job across the globe, hardly known to the American Jewish community on whose behalf it works on a 24-hour-a-day clock.


This Sobernheim Jewish chaplains’ retreat in the outskirts of a quaint German village, by its very nature, made a Jewish statement in Germany.

Prof. A. Stanley Dreyfus, a World War II chaplain-rabbi himself in Germany and presently director of placement of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), was the ranking scholar-in-residence for retreat.

The village of Sobernheim has a plaque on an old building that in pre-Nazi Germany was the local synagogue. Now the onetime shul is in danger of being sold for commercial use. The village is 75 miles southwest of Frankfurt, thriving banking and commercial center of West Germany. Even now the synagogue is being used as a warehouse. At one edge of Sobernheim is the Frankfurt community’s “Rhea Zentrum,” a rehabilitation center run by Frankfurt “Gemeinde” (Jewish community organization) as a camplike retreat with comfortable accommodations for camping youngsters, oldsters or quiet-seeking scholars and students.

This time, eight active-duty military chaplains met with JWBCJC Director Lapp and Prof. Dreyfus, rabbi-scholar-teacher-chaplain. (During World War II, Chaplain Dreyfus had lived with a German family whose mother had been killed by the Nazis during a forced march. The Nazis executed her by injecting air into her veins by syringe.


Prof. Dreyfus noted that the “Gates of Forgiveness,” the new Reform Machzor for the High Holy Days, has a preface that reads: “We Jews are as the dew, on every blade of grass, trodden underfoot today, are here tomorrow morning.”

Each year JWB-CJC rotates invitee-scholars–Orthodox, Conservative, Reform–to meet with chaplains on duty in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces (NATO) in Europe. “Rabbis Among Warriors” are assigned a week-long scholarly retreat for Jewish study, away from the daily drumbeat of military life.

“No one in the civilian rabbinate or in civilian life in America can appreciate what this means to us,” remarked Chaplain Kenneth J. Leinwand, whose headquarters is in Stuttgart, an industrial center with a big U.S. military complex on its outskirts.

“In America, one’s rabbinical colleagues and many congregations are nearby and talk to exchange ideas and experiences daily. Not so with us chaplains. We rarely get to see our colleagues for any interchange; our ‘congregations’ are widely spread out; and the varied military administrative load is often all absorbing.”


Rabbi Lapp noted, “There are unique problems for the Jewish chaplain.” They include:

“1. We are all far from home.

“2. We all experience the culture-shock to the American soldier, sailor, airman-woman overseas, often far away from a Jewish institution of any kind.

“3. We are few in number, ministering to our fellow Jews, who are few in number.

“4. We must cover a vast area.

“5. We must deal with a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds among our congregants, and still try to weld them together into a military community in which we all care for one another.”

To meet these Jewish needs, JWB provides guidance to military chaplains in the form of literature, visitations and counseling. JWB also assembles and ships packages of kosher foods from matzoh balls to gefilte fish and sacramental wine for kiddush, as well as other kosher foods requested by the military. JWB also sends congregational and religious books, supplies and accoutrements. For JWB, all this is an on-going logistical challenge.

In order to help solve the religious human-power problem, chaplains are authorized to appoint “lay leaders,” certified by JWB usually from the military community, who can direct religious services and meet educational needs in the absence of the chaplain.

But in all matters religious, regardless of rank, the chaplain is the religious authority. This avoids many a sticky situation in an encapsulated, though often far-flung, Jewish institutional society.

Every chaplain is by military definition a chaplain for all faiths within his area. He is responsible for finding ways to provide suitable methods to meet the varying religious needs of all military folk.

For instance, a non-Jewish chaplain far from a city may one day have to put through a hurried call to a Jewish chaplain when a Jewish family stationed at a remote overseas base become parents of a baby boy–and a “mohel” is needed.


The Jewish chaplain is thus faced with a key religious problem. It has to be solved within days. Both his knowledge and his energy are in demand. There are many such examples. (Often, an available Jewish military physician-pediatrician with surgical training is called upon to act as “mohel” for ritual circumcision. The chaplain-rabbi is, of course, in attendance.

Col. Richard K. Martin, senior U.S. army chaplain in Europe, of Lynchburg, Va., a Protestant military clergyman, remarked to us that the chaplain is the “spiritual leader for soldiers and for their families in the new overseas.”

Besides, he said, each chaplain needs a pastor for himself, hence the idea of human collegial contact arises similarly to the “havrusa” (friend and study companion) in the yeshiva. As for the Jewish community back home, Chaplain Martin said sagely:

“The people of God need to know what Jewish chaplains are doing.”

At Sobernheim, they were studying texts of ancient-yesterday with Prof. Dreyfus, who directed their attention to the Kinot (Elegies) for Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, the time of the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, with various other historical references to Jewish suffering–and creative survival.

Not surprisingly, Prof. Dreyfus pointed to a reference about pogroms of Mainz (Mayence), Speyer and Worms in Germany and the depredations of the bloody Crusaders, plundering and killing (circa 1096) and thereafter. It happened almost next door, geographically speaking.

The Kinot-Elegies of Tisha B’Av will always come more alive for me in the future and chaplain-rabbis attending and the congregations to whom they returned.


Some of the “righteous Gentiles” in 1616 helped the Jews escape Frankfurt to the nearby medieval town of Hoechst, today, “10 minutes away by train to the Middle Ages.” So Hoechst is, still, “one of the jewels in Frankfurt’s crown,” alovely town “of medieval peace and quiet” where Jews were once sheltered and protected.

The military chaplains walked the quaint, charming–and agonized–street of the refuge of Hoechst.

None of these JWB-endorsed chaplains will ever be at a loss sermonic material amid Jewish history, ancient and, at once, modern.

Next: Helicopter over Heidelberg

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