“Rabbis among Warriors” — to help preserve the peace and freedom which the free world today enjoys, and to affirm the Jewish presence in the armed forces of the United States the world over.
That is the way JWB President Esther Leah Ritz, of Milwaukee, sums up the mission and the function of the JWB Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy (CJC). It is that story that this series, the result of three weeks with American Jews in uniform in Europe, will try to tell. It is a unique one.
This is the vital, high value, good citizenship role assigned by the JWB-CJC that for some odd reason (out of sight out of mind?) may be the best kept secret in the American Jewish community.
Or, perhaps it is just taken for granted, and then forgotten. Except by JWB, which is charged by the U.S. government’s Department of Defense with being the “endorsing agency” for all Jewish chaplains in the armed forces. At the moment, there are 53 Jewish chaplains not including those JWB-endorsed chaplains serving Veterans Administration facilities.
65 JEWISH CHAPLAINCY SLOTS AVAILABLE
There are 19 Orthodox, 14 Conservative, 20 Reform. A total of 65 Jewish chaplaincy slots are available to be filled. Like the military itself, it is an honorable career field too often neglected, according to Rabbi Barry H. Greene, of South Orange, N.J., chairman of JWB-CJC.
Chaplain David Lapp, 53, a retired Army colonel-chaplain, is director of JWB’s Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy, and director of JWB’s Armed Forces and Veterans Services Committee.
He was the escort officer, keen guide and inside-light on our three-week probe of the heart of NATO’s Jewish chaplaincy — a particular Jewish challenge since the key to Europe’s NATO defenses centers on (and in) West Germany. Together, we came, we saw and we learned of Jews overseas in uniform at Heidelberg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Ramstein, Naples and the U.S. Sixth Fleet, and Livorno.
Few rabbis in this world carry heavier Jewish emotional baggage in their shoulder packs than those who serve in West Germany and Europe. After all, we Americans today help to defend West Germany and Western Europe, a scant generation after the Holocaust.
The memory of the Nazi-inflicted genocide of Jews casts a giant shadow, silent and often unseen (or ignored), over every soldier, sailor, air force and marine officer and enlisted man and woman, their families who are with them, and the thousands of civilians on European station with America’s armed forces.
That the religious, especially the Jewish component is intense is readily apparent — though kept at arm’s length (and tongue’s) — and cannot be denied.
‘TIMES CHANGE, AND SO DO PEOPLE’
Defensively, perhaps, both U.S. civilians and military on duty (and the German Jewish and gentile populations) often are at pains to remark, “Americans make more of the issue of the Holocaust than we do here on the ground where it all took place. After all, times change, and so do people and the world.”
But neither they there, nor we as American Jews, can afford to shut it out entirely. The specter of the Holocaust still exists one way or another, marked by the age level of the people one sees on the streets in West Germany. Yet West German government policy has been sensitive, aware and mostly positive on the issues stemming from the Holocaust and the German Jewish community that was and is no more. In the large cities, Jewish institutions now flourish under the same government tax-support rights as do all other religious organizations and institutions.
JWB “SHOWS THE FLAG” AND JEWISH PRESENCE
JWB “shows the flag” — and the Jewish presence in the U.S. military worldwide — and certainly in West Germany — through its chaplains who serve some 300,000 Americans of all faiths. A chaplain, by duty, is for all service-folk, while at the same time especially serving his denominational group.
Chaplains and officers of every faith and group are wont to say that “the military reflects the civilian society in all ways.”
There are only nine Jewish chaplains in Europe. But their “congregations,” often far-flung and wide-distanced, compare favorably and proportionally with all other faiths represented at workshop and educational sessions.
To the American Jewish community, the Jewish congregation within the U.S. armed forces that is nurtured by JWB-CJC, is most often “invisible.” Therefore, it is worthwhile to list some of the key areas of vital interest flowing from that Jewish religious-ethnic association.
In the military, it is a matter of established policy that Judaism is one of the three major faiths of America, quality more than numbers being the overriding factor.
STAR OF DAVID PENNANT DEMONSTRATES POLICY
This major principle of our military policy in the chaplaincy is graphically demonstrated by the recent decision to establish a new pennant with the Star of David as its motif.
It is not lost on any observer that no flag ever flies above the American flage–except at religious services. Then, the religious pennant flies above the flag–denoting we are “one nation under God.”
The Magen David flew above the Stars and Stripes before my eyes. I saw it from the deck of the USS Puget Sound, Sixth Fleet Sea Headquarters, as the shofar was blown by a Jewish chaplain on the admiral’s flagship in the Mediterranean, marking the call-to-conscience and the-then approaching High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
While I personally had been in the U.S. military reserves for more than 28 years, I had never before witnessed such an event. It sent a thrill of pride and goose pimples up and down my spine.
The U.S. military is one of the few places in Jewish life where the various wings of Judaism cooperate with another for the greatest good of all.
RELIGIOUS SERVICES TAILORED FOR ‘CONGREGATION’ AT HAND
Chaplains tailor religious services to the “congregation” at hand. They exhibit understanding and setting an example for Jews in civilian life as well.
This is also true of the 21 rabbis who make up the Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy (CJC-JWB), Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, who meet in harmony to make policy.
It is reflected in the JWB Armed Forces and Veterans Services Committee, chaired by Gerald Ostrow, a Pittsburgh, Pa., lay leader. Ostrow is president of the Pittsburgh United Jewish Federation. He was an Army Air Force officer in World War II.
In the U.S. armed forces the Jewish chaplain, line officers and enlisted men and women strike down the silly stereotype that Jews have no affinity for military careers. The facts belie the stereotype. Jewish officers and enlisted personnel and their families overseas have a presence that stands tall and disproportionate to their numbers. We are a small people, but a surprisingly vigorous one.
Nor are Jewish service men reluctant to lend a hand to the military Jewish community as official “lay leaders.” When a chaplain isn’t available or may need assistance, “lay leaders” assist at religious services or may conduct worship. Many servicemen and women also help as teachers in Hebrew and Sunday schools across Europe. Truly–“am Yisrael chai”–the people of Israel lives.
There are countless numbers of far-flung Jewish military communities worldwide that would benefit from the presence and energy of a Jewish chaplain and the JWB network of Jewish involvement in both broad policy and individual service.
JEWISH CHAPLAIN’S INSIGNIA DEPICTS TEN COMMANDMENTS
The Jewish chaplain’s insignia depicts the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Until recently, these appeared in Roman numerals (a sly twist of history). Now that insignia has been redesigned with the Commandments represented by Hebrew letters, ready for wide distribution throughout the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Poetic, as well as linguistic, justice.
Americans at home in civilian life–Jews as well as Christians–should know that, heaven forbid, in time of war, their military chaplains go into battle unarmed.
They are girded only with their faith and their religious insignia.
Next: Germany and “Jews as the Dew…”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.