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Head of Jewish military chaplain group retires

Rabbi David Lapp, left, helps affix a mezuzah during the dedication of a Jewish chapel at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany in September 2005. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Rabbi David Lapp, left, helps affix a mezuzah during the dedication of a Jewish chapel at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany in September 2005. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

NEW YORK, Feb. 13 (JTA) — Losing Rabbi David Lapp to retirement is “like losing someone on the battlefield, someone who suffered the mud and the pain and the loneliness with you,” says Maj. Rabbi Carlos Huerta, the Jewish community chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy. Jewish military chaplains are preparing to feel some of that pain and loneliness with the announcement of Lapp’s retirement as head of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council after 24 years. Lapp, who’s married and the father of three children — “six children, since they are married,” he says — and grandfather of 10, will retain his duties until his replacement is found. Lapp’s proudest achievement from that period, he says, is his transdenominational prayer book, first produced for the U.S. Army in 1982. Before then, “there was a siddur that the armed forces produced, but it had sections for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox,” he says. Lapp collaborated with rabbis from the Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary and his alma mater, Yeshiva University, on the prayer book. That’s part of Lapp’s modus operandi of supporting all Jewish chaplains in the military, and through them, Jewish soldiers — no matter their denomination. There are 28 Jewish chaplains in active duty in the Army, Air Force and Navy, and 43 reservists — a number that has been steady for the past decade. During his stint at the Chaplains Council, Lapp has also helped the army provide ready-to-eat kosher meals to soldiers in the field since 1990. Before that, kashrut-observant soldiers had to “make do,” with regular soldier rations, said Lapp, eating what they could, swapping the rest with other soldiers when possible. Huerta, who performed the first Passover in Baghdad in 2003 after Saddam Hussein was outsted, recalled that “Lapp got me my wine, matzah and gefilte fish for the seder.” Born in Austria in 1931, Lapp immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of 9. After the Anschluss in 1938, restrictive laws were placed upon Austria’s Jews quickly, he says. Lapp was first transferred to a Jewish school, then taken out of school altogether when it became too dangerous. His father was forced to work in a labor camp. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, his American relatives, including his father’s sister in Brooklyn, sponsored the family’s visa. He studied political science and religious education at Yeshiva University and was ordained at the Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1957. He studied chaplaincy at Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. After his commission into the Army Chaplain Corps in 1958, one of his early assignments was as an assistant chaplain in Munich. There, along with providing programs for Jewish personnel in Munich, Augsburg and northern Italy, he served as stockade chaplain at Dachau. It was strange for Lapp to return to the region. “On the one hand, I wanted to be there to show that the Nazis didn’t get rid of me as they wanted. On the other hand, I wanted nothing to do with them. But after a while, you realize they aren’t the same people, they’re the children,” he says. During Lapp’s chaplaincy, he says, “we had conferences with just kosher food just because we could — to show we’re here.” Another coup during Lapp’s stint in Germany was a Jewish conference in Berchtesgaden, the site of Hitler’s retreat. The U.S. Army converted one of the buildings into the General Walker Hotel, where Lapp held a gathering for Torah study, attended by some 500 Jewish men and women. Ten years later, he returned to Germany as 1st Armored Division Chaplain at Nuremberg. There he supervised 33 chaplains, managed religious programs of all faiths for eight communities and served as budget administrator for religious activities of the 1st Armed Division. Lapp served in Vietnam in 1966-67 as Deputy Field Force Chaplain, ministering to troops assigned to two divisions in II Corps Highlands Area. He retired from active duty in 1982 with the rank of colonel, and was awarded the Legion of Merit by the U.S. Army. Huerta called Lapp “a foxhole buddy in the true sense of the word.” He describes the chaplains’ need for Lapp: “As a chaplain, I talk to soldiers, but who do I talk to? Without Rabbi Lapp, we would have gone by the wayside.” Huerta recalls a particularly difficult time in 1997 while he was serving in Germany: His wife was diagnosed with brain cancer, which proved fatal. Huerta, a father of eight at the time, says that Lapp “being there helped me through it; he watched my back.”

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