BALTIMORE, Md. (JTA) — When West Point’s Jewish chaplain left the academy during Joshua Knobel’s freshman year, Knobel filled in for him, running Jewish prayer services at the military school’s chapel.
In the years following his 2001 graduation, Knobel led services more than 6,000 miles east while deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. His career choice crystallized there.
Knobel decided to become a rabbi.
“As I was making the decision of who I wanted to be,” Knobel said, “I realized that my path in life is to help people build communities based on the dynamic of a people and its sacred tradition.”
Now 32, Knobel (pronounced “noble”), a native of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is midway through the five-year rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus. He expects to be ordained in May 2014, and he’s also working on a master’s degree in Jewish education.
While three current HUC students are undergoing chaplaincy training and a 2002 graduate serves as an Air Force chaplain, the reverse path is exceedingly rare. Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, director of HUC-JIR’s School of Rabbinic Studies, called Knobel’s “a very interesting career trajectory.” He is the first student in her 10 years on campus to step from military service into the Reform rabbinical school.
In an interview with JTA, Knobel said his interest in the rabbinate arose from his experiences dealing with the big-picture concerns of soldiers. As a platoon leader and later a company commander, Knobel, a captain, provided telecommunications support in the field. He also was tasked with tending to his unit’s morale and cohesion issues.
Knobel spoke with soldiers about their family and personal matters, including planning for civilian life post-discharge.
“Military deployment is like a timeout, and people are eager to get back” home, he said. “But we — myself, commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers — wanted to help soldiers figure out how to improve their lives once they returned: how to approach their relationships, their finances, what they want to do with their lives.
“By the time I was a company commander, I knew I wanted to do something other than what I was doing — communications.” What he wanted, Knobel said, was to “help people figure out how to live their lives with purpose and intent.”
Those discussions sometimes contained spiritual and religious dimensions. The U.S. military officially tries to avoid creating an uncomfortable environment regarding religion, so only those authorized to conduct religious services and perform other religious duties may do so. Military chaplains who are spread thin may issue written orders allowing another person to fill the role of “designated faith group leader,” as was Knobel.
Knobel’s first overseas post, Kuwait’s Camp Udairi on the eve of America’s war in Iraq, didn’t always have a rabbi available to serve Jewish soldiers. So Knobel often substituted there and at the Kuwait City International Airport base. While in Afghanistan, Knobel worked with Maj. Shmuel Felzenberg, the chaplain who coordinated Jewish worship at Bagram Airfield and at other bases in the country.
Knobel filled in when Felzenberg, who is affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, was absent. Knobel spent holidays traveling between sites to lead services, sometimes at four bases. Jewish soldiers often flew by helicopter to reach Knobel and other rabbis.
At a seder that Knobel led for eight Jewish soldiers at the Naray base in northeast Afghanistan, Knobel said he was moved by a fellow captain approximately his age who had not attended a seder since becoming bar mitzvah.
He had a powerful reaction to the singing of “Dayeinu,” Knobel remembered.
“You could see that he had touched something in his past,” he said. The two spoke later about where the man’s Jewish and general lives would go upon returning to America, Knobel said.
“Those types of discussions were not infrequent,” Knobel said. “Being removed from home makes you think of things in a different way, and if you have the frame of Judaism to look at the experiences, it shapes those conversations: who you are and who you’re going to be.
Felzenberg, now serving as West Point’s Jewish chaplain, called Knobel’s “good disposition and even-keeled nature” a good match both for the chaplaincy and for being a rabbi.
“As we say in Judaism, ‘Kishmo ken hu’ ” — one is as his name, Felzenberg said. “His character is noble in that he served his country and now is studying to be a rabbi.”
Knobel applied to rabbinical school in 2007 while still stationed abroad, then met with admissions officials while in New York on leave. Back in Afghanistan a week later, he received a letter of acceptance. A month after his discharge in June 2008 at Fort Bragg, N.C., Knobel began studying at HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus.
Knobel says he is considering various career options, including the military chaplaincy. He served two years as a rabbinical intern at a synagogue in Yuma, Ariz., flying in one Shabbat a month plus holidays. This year he’s working in the education department of a synagogue in San Fernando Valley, Calif.
“I’ve always viewed it as my responsibility to make sure that Jewish soldiers, wherever I could find them, had a way of observing Shabbat, rituals or services,” he said. “The purpose I’ve dedicated myself to can be served in a community congregation or in the military.”