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Rabbis Among Warriors

December 11, 1984
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When the President of the United States gives the heart-rending account of a Jewish chaplain at the scene of the terrorist bombing at the Beirut Marine Barracks to a fundamentalist Christian group, that is headline news.

President Reagan did; and it was.

That Jewish chaplain is Lt. Cmdr. Arnold E. Resnicoff, 38, of Hyattsville, Md., on duty with the U.S. Sixth Fleet here in the Mediterranean, sailing a sea-circuit of more than 30 ships. He was the first chaplain-rabbi assigned to the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

Truly a “Rabbi among Warriors,” Chaplain Resnicoff has now been assigned to the prestigious Naval War College, Newport, R.I., for advanced study, a “must” for career officers.

It was little more than a year ago–on Oct. 23, 1983, that the Islamic terrorist bomb-truck in Beirut evaded the security network at U.S. Marine Headquarters to explode under sleeping marines; 241 American lives were lost.

To a shocked civilized world, it underscored vulnerability to terrorism anywhere, anytime.

BEIRUT BLAST UNDERSCORED A CRYING NEED

To Chaplain Resnicoff and his brother chaplains of Christian faith, it underscored the crying need to reach out a helping hand. From that rubble, from the anguish of war and the craziness of conflict, they would try to rescue our common humanity.

“When I found myself staring at the horror of the truck-bomb explosion that day in Beirut, there was an impulse to cry out that we had, indeed, been forsaken,” Chaplain Resnicoff recalled.

“Among the first to reach the building after the blast, Lt. Cmdr. George ‘Pooch’ Pucciarelli, the Catholic chaplain attached to the Marine unit, and I faced a scene almost too terrible to describe.

“Bodies — and pieces of bodies–were everywhere. Screams of those injured or trapped were barely audible at first, as our minds struggled to grapple with the reality before us: a massive four-story building reduced to a pile of rubble . . .”

In the agony, Chaplain Resnicoff lost his “kipah” (the skull cap worn by observant Jews). Chaplain Pucciarelli quickly cut a circle out of his own cap, a piece of camouflage cloth which “became my temporary head-covering,” Chaplain Resnicoff recalls.

PRESIDENT RELATES CHAPLAIN’S ACCOUNT

Chaplain Resnicoff’s account, re-told by President Reagan in his major address before a Baptist convention, recalled:

” ‘Somehow we wanted those marines to know not just that we were chaplains, but that he was Christian and that I was Jewish. Somehow, we both wanted to shout the message in a land where people were killing each other, at least partially because of the difference in religion among them, that we–we Americans–still believed that we could each be proud of our particular religion, and yet work side by side when the time came to help others.’ “

Chaplain Resnicoff, a young looking Navy veteran, his grim experience having flecked his black hair with gray, has seen much since he received his Conservative ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS). He pursued his rabbinical studies after having been graduated from Dartmouth.

He was endorsed by the JWB Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy (JWB-CJC), the U.S. Jewish community’s endorsing agency for all Jewish chaplains in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Each of the major faiths–Jewish, Catholic, Protestant–has such an endorsing agency in liaison with the Department of Defense, symbols for freedom and religious equality in America.

Chaplain Resnicoff is married to the former Barbara Ann Shore, an attorney. They have one daughter, Malka Sarit, born in August, 1978, in Yokosuka, Japan.

SARATOGA SKIPPER TELLS OF HIS MEN AND MISSION

Aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga just outside of Naples, Italy, the ship’s commander, Capt. Jack Ready, 45, of Quincy, Mass., took time from his heavy responsibilities.

In his plain quarters, the Saratoga skipper emphasized that it was the human side–men and women–that makes the Navy. With all the legendary spit-and-polish around, Capt. Ready was warm, friendly, relaxed, strong and positive.

“By paying attention to our human resources, we go to sea and operate with people who are healthy mentally and physically.

“The average age of the men who man this ship (women are not assigned to combat vessels) is 19.8 years. Seventy percent of them are away from home for the first time. A kind of conflict arises within them between home (sickness) and the Navy; 40 percent of them there are under 21,” he said.

“Oftentimes when they come home to port” the married ones among the 5,000 men running down the gangplank to shore might find a hundred wives not at the dock.

“There are no letters at sea. That is a problem. And when the letters finally do come in, we know there are problems!”

Problems like these are made-to-order human assignments for chaplains and the Navy Family Service Centers. In the Navy, the men-and-the-mission are one.

‘SUPER SARA’ DEFENDS FREEDOM OF SEAS

With some 72 planes on her angled flight deck, or stacked below near huge elevators, “Super Sara,” as she is fondly known, has as her mission “providing sea-based tactical air power for defense of America’s right to freedom of the seas, as well as the protection of U.S. sovereignty,” Capt. Ready explained.

“Super Sara” has “an armored flight deck, advanced underwater protection and internal compartmentation to reduce the effects of nuclear or conventional warfare.” Her multiple decks are bewildering to the newcomer, like a skyscraper laid sideways, with 17 different levels.

“The officers and men here represent a section of the finest young Americans molded together in purpose, joined with this great ship to form an invincible fighting team,” Capt. Ready said.

This day, we also made a little bit of Jewish history aboard the “Super Sara,” pride of the Navy. We were formally “piped aboard” the big ship in true Navy tradition.

More important, Chaplain Resnicoff brought a Shofar aboard–the ancient ram’s horn which is sounded on the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Daily, during the preceding month of Elul, the Shofar is blown to sound a call to conscience for the approaching yearly Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment.

SHOFAR’S BLAST SOUNDS ON ‘SARA’S’ DECKS

Across the vast decks of “Super Sara”–a good Hebraic-sounding name–over the loudspeaker system went the call of the Shofar, sounded by Chaplain Resnicoff. This same Shofar, ram’s horn, in ancient times was also used to call the people to arms in times of danger. “Super Sara” seemed at home with the Shofar.

A religious service led by Chaplain Resnicoff on the flight deck sent prayers winging up over Mediterranean skies. The small Jewish congregation on “Super Sara” percentagewise turns out in greater proportion to religious services than do the large number of Catholics in the crew.

CHIEF CHAPLAIN’S OFFICE IS ‘TOP SACRED’

Later we lunched aboard the Puget Sound, a destroyer-tender with the Sixth Fleet, in spanking-sparkling Navy style, with special considerations of salad and fresh fruit for those JWB-CJC and a retired Army colonel; this writer, a retired Air Force officer; my wife Evelyn; and Chaplain Resnicoff on his homeship. The disciplines–military and religious–were not lost on the host naval staff of the flagship, whose chief chaplain’s office sports the jocular sign: “Top Sacred.”

A few minutes later, Chaplain Resnicoff sounded the Shofar. And, at the afternoon Mincha service, the Navy’s Star of David religious pennant flew above the Stars and Stripes.

No flag ever flies above the Stars and Stripes–except the religious pennants of America’s three great religious during the respective religious services, “signifying one nation under God.”

Chaplain Resnicoff is the same Navy clergyman who once interceded to help Muslim sailors in the Sixth Fleet. They appealed to him to help them avoid eating pork. Natch! Their eggs were fried in pork fat. Like Jews, Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. Chaplain Resnicoff arranged to have their eggs cooked separately in a microwave oven.

A chaplain for all seasons–and servings.

Next: Hypnotic chaplain in Italy

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