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U.S. Navy Rabbi Seeks to Bring a Bit of Yiddishkeit to the Fleet

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As a rabbinical student in New York, it seemed unlikely to Daniella Kolodny that not long after ordination she’d be leading High Holiday and Sukkot services on an American military base in Yokosuka, Japan, as she is doing this year. On the other hand, considering that Yokosuka is on land, it was probably a more likely place to be leading a congregation than the spot in the middle of the Persian Gulf where Rabbi Kolodny, now a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, spent Passover this year.

She marked the Jewish celebration of liberation from Egypt aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier then on duty in the Middle East.

“If you want to talk about galut,” or exile, “and the edge of the Diaspora, that’s what it is,” she says of life on the ship. “People there are quite devout. We were not so far from Bavel,” or Babel, which was in modern-day Iraq, “but in many ways, we were far from anything Jewish.”

Kolodny, 39, a 2004 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of the Conservative movement, is the only active-duty female rabbi in the Navy. When she’s not traveling, she works at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

On the holidays, she has been deployed to serve both Jewish and non-Jewish members of the American military.

“It’s difficult for Jews who observe a regimented system called halachah,” or rabbinic law, “to live in another regimented system called the United States Navy,” she says.

“The military tends to be quite a religious place, and if you are from a small faith group you can feel isolated from others,” she adds. “The chaplains, by and large, do make every effort to find places for Jews and to provide for them. But since they are a small group, they’re going to feel isolated come Sunday morning or Erev Shabbat.”

Before rabbinical school, Kolodny — who has a Master’s degree in Jewish Communal Service from Hebrew Union College — worked for The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland doing programming for young professionals, and also worked in family programming at a Long Island, N.Y., synagogue.

At the time, she says, learning was an avocation, and working for the Jewish community was her vocation. The rabbinate allowed her to combine both interests.

During her last year in rabbinical school, Kolodny says she began examining the opportunities available to new rabbis. Rabbi Irving Elson, a Navy chaplain who also had graduated from JTS, visited the school and suggested that Kolodny give the military a shot.

“He said, ‘Just try it; go into the basic course,’ ” Kolodny recalls. She completed the 10-week basic course, followed by a summer session.

“I said, ‘This is something that is going to be a real opportunity — an opportunity to serve Jews and an opportunity to serve people who need chaplains at a difficult time,’ ” she says. “It’s a way to serve Jewish people that is neglected.”

Elson, for his part, says the biggest challenge a Jewish chaplain in the U.S. military faces is educating people who are not familiar with Judaism. It’s a task that Kolodny is well suited to carry out, he says.

“She’s working in a place that has a very, very unique mission,” says Elson, deputy command chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. “She might be involved in educating the National Naval Medical Center on issues from kosher food to Jewish practices in death and so on. She has her work cut out for her.”

“She’s good at what she does for several reasons,” Elson adds. “No. 1, she believes with all her heart in what she’s doing; No. 2, she’s very good at it, she’s just a good rabbi; No. 3, she’s very personable. And she’s a wonderful role model.”

The Navy has seven active-duty rabbis. Four are Conservative, two are Reform and one is Orthodox, Kolodny says.

According to the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, there are 12 active-duty Jewish chaplains in the Army, 11 in the Air Force and five in the Veterans Association. There are 44 Jewish chaplains in the reserves and 90 part-timers.

Though the military doesn’t publish a listing of soldiers by religion, general wisdom holds that Jews make up about 1 percent of the U.S. military.

In her hospital work, Kolodny provides pastoral care for people receiving medical attention. Some of those she helps care for have been injured in Iraq or Afghanistan.

She also serves Jews on staff who are seeking the spiritual guidance of a rabbi.

“It’s incredibly rewarding,” Kolodny says. “One of the wonderful things about my work, I really feel it very strongly, is that I get to go on a life journey with people.”

She is alongside patients for circumcision ceremonies, illnesses and deaths — and remains with families afterwards.

“It’s very rewarding to be with people when they’re really hurting and try to bring God’s presence to that realm,” she says.

In February, Kolodny went to Hebrew Union College trying to recruit rabbinic chaplains. Last year she visited JTS on Veterans’ Day.

“It’s important that we get military chaplains out there to serve” Jews in the military, she says. But she acknowledges, “It’s not for everybody.”

“I never in a million years would have thought that I would have enjoyed” military service, she says. “But what’s really interesting is that, with all of that regimentation, you can know what to expect; you know what’s expected of you and what to expect of other people.”

Each night aboard the Carl Vinson, TV sets and radios were turned off for a few minutes as the chaplain on board offered a prayer over the ship’s loudspeaker. One night, Kolodny — who says she tended to offer “Jewish-style” prayers imbued with Jewish wisdom — quoted an old Jewish proverb in her remarks: “Man plans and God laughs,” she said.

The following night, a petty officer approached Kolodny and thanked her for the previous evening’s prayer. He said, “Thank you so much for using that proverb; my grandmother used to say that all the time,” Kolodny recalls.

“I was able to speak to somebody who felt isolated and was able to speak to him in a mode that he understood and that my colleagues don’t know — a Yiddish aphorism,” she says. “I feel my job is to bring Yiddishkeit to the fleet — and that I was bringing Yiddishkeit to him.”

Kolodny leads services in her military dress uniform, complete with lapel pin depicting the Ten Commandments. In the past, she says, services at the base in Japan have attracted about 50 people.

She says she has had no problems as a female chaplain in the male-dominated military. No soldier, for example, has asked for a male rabbi when Koldny has arrived, she says.

Being a female rabbi is “a bigger problem in the civilian world than it is in the military,” she says. “I think that, you know, there are women who occupy positions of authority up and down the chain. People are accustomed to seeing women in leadership.”

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