Rabbis Among Warriors

A parachuting chaplain-rabbi needs no further credentials whenever he delivers a Shabbat or Yom Tov sermon "from on high!"

Chaplain Avi Weiss, 33, an Army major and an Orthodox rabbi from California with "smicha" (ordination) from Yeshiva University, New York, is in such a position.

Before being assigned here at one hub of U.S. Headquarters for Europe (USAEUR), Chaplain Weiss made 27 parachute jumps with the famed 82nd Airborne Division as an infantry battalion chaplain, at Ft. Benning, Ga.

"With the paratroops, jumping is the key to being with the people of your unit. It’s like medicine; you take it and you are one of the boys." Rabbis among Warriors!

"YOU ARE ALWAYS SCARED WHEN YOU JUMP"

Scared? "You are always scared when you jump. I’m still scared when I jump. I did it because I enjoyed duty by being with my unit."

An eight-year veteran, Chaplain Weiss is still a "jumping chaplain," but in a different way these days during his two-year tour in West Germany — which he will probably exend to a third year.

It’s different over here and challenging in the Frankfurt sector, where Chaplain Weiss is jumping from a thousand-and-one duties and obligations a chaplain has — especially a Jewish chaplain whose "congregations(s)" are scattered far and wide, from the teeming city to remote duty stations.

Rabbi Weiss is one of the eight Jewish chaplains assigned to Europe Each one is especially selected and officially endorsed by the JWB Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy (JWB-CJC), the agency acting as the American Jewish community’s representative to the U.S. Department of Defense in a unique relationship.

JWB-CJC is a unifying force and sets an example for the civilian American Jewish community by bringing all wings of Judaism together to make decisions in harmony for the benefit of Jewish men and women in the Army, Navy and Air Force.

FRANKFURT IS PROVING GROUND FOR HUMAN RELATIONS

Weiss keeps on the jump in the Frankfurt area, where the military, the military-civilian community of family and employees, and the West German-Jewish community interface daily. This is a proving ground for human relations. And it tests Chaplain Weiss’s energy, fortitude — as well as the good-natured cooperation of his family — wife Elcya, and children.

"The kids wonder what he’s doing home when he’s home," Elcya laughed.

Living in a military-city-within-the-city of Frankfurt enables Rabbi Weiss to use the effective volunteer lay leader system which military chaplains are encouraged by JWB-CJC to develop.

Thus religious service, religious school (which opened its new semester for both children and parents when we were there), adult education, and social services are part of an extended program.

Relationships with the West German Jewish community find Rabbi Weiss reading the Torah for a synagogal minyan and assuming a role with the Frankfurt "Gemeinde."

In addition, there is the Army’s 300-bed, 97th Corps General Hospital in Frankfurt, where Chaplain John Magalee cooperates with chaplains of all faiths to ease the pain of the sick and injured.

Says Magalee on the chaplain’s role in hospitals: "God produces the illness and He’s got to be part of the healing team."

In the military, "It is a mistake to think that you are a religious leader in the normal religious sense," Chaplain Weiss asserted.

The problems are often much more humanly involved, he said. "How do you handle a situation like this? A young wife is dying of cancer. Her paratrooper husband breaks his leg in his 127th jump. They are the parents of two young children.

"In the military, you are a social worker, a facilitator of Jewish services, a custodian of funds, an ecumenical spokesman; you wave the American flag and the religious pennant.

When I was jumping with paratroops, I spent about 90 percent of my time on duty with non-Jews." Every chaplain is a chaplain for soldiers of all faiths when on duty.

"Further, in military Jewish society, life is often very assimilated. One can be as observant as he chooses in military life, but he or she has to work at it harder than he or she would in civilian life. The Jewish chaplain has to meet every such need."

A chaplain-rabbi in the military "poskens" (hands down interpretations of Jewish religious law) for all types of Jews in the service. Those types vary widely. Both rabbi and serviceman or woman has to be flexible to solve religious problems in the military.

Marriage, a brit-milah at a post far away from the chaplain’s station, bar and bat mitzvah, inter-married couples, "part-Jewish" individuals, rocky family relationships, families where wife or husband "wants to be" Jewish and the other does not — almost all of these are problems like the ritual circumcision first mentioned far from the chaplain’s home office and far from a close-knit Jewish community at home — and are only a few examples of how complicated Jewish socio-religious issues can be in a military setting.

NAGGING QUESTION OF JEWISH LIFE IN WEST GERMANY

Then there is the nagging question of re-constituting Jewish life in West Germany after the Holocaust — serving on that blood-soaked soil of persecution in a protective role to help keep Western Europe free.

Once in West Germany itself, the issue is different. It is no longer theoretical or academic. You can push it aside, agonize over it, debate it within or without your own mind and heard, or you can forget it for the time.

Some "over here" say we make too much of it "over there." There is "a new generation, " a "new Germany," a "new democracy," "new problems," a "new threat" from the superpower to the east.

Yet, you still look closely at any West German over 60. You leave unspoken the question, "What were you doing ‘then’?" Many are likely to reply, if at all, "I was on the Russian front." That response could come from your barber on a U.S. military base.

"I DON’T THINK OF GERMAN HISTORY IN MY ROLE"

"In Germany, I don’t think of German history as part of my role here at all in terms of my functions as an American chaplain. I could have been sent to Italy or to some other country just as easily," Chaplain Weiss said.

"Troops who are asked the question about Germany do not see it as their role to deal with the problem on a personal basis.

"I do not speak of it from the pulpit. But it is certainly still an issue. We must think about it more. Some people try to avoid it. Some choose not to think about it at all."

German life in Frankfurt is comfortable and prosperous with upper middle class patterns. The commercial and fiscal capital of the country, Frankfurt is often jokingly called "Bankfurt."

Rebuilt, you would not recognize it from the heavy pasting it took from Allied air and ground forces during World War Two. The rubble is gone. Streets, subways and parks are sleek and clean.

Yet, the American military, dependent families and civilian employee components can live side by side with the West German population and hardly notice one another. People are polite,sometimes friendly, sometimes even warm. But there is a distance. Yet,there are numerous examples of close individual relationships.

America’s chaplains have learned to function in many military and social settings over the centuries since 1775, when the Continental Congress provided for the first Army chaplains.

Chaplain Weiss would like to see more and more Jewish citizens serve their country in the armed forces and thus step up the need for more Jewish chaplains as a visible sign of citizen service.

"We have our full fair share of chaplains. We are about three percent of the population in the U.S. and perhaps less than one half of one percent of the population in the military services. We have to show the flag.

"Every person who lives in America has a responsibility to support the military with some form of services. It is just like taxes," Chaplain Weiss believes.

The mystic and the military

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