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Behind the Headlines: Senior U.S. Chaplain Envisions Role for Clergy in Helping Rebuild Kosovo

June 16, 1999
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Now that the Kosovo war is over, a senior chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces — a rabbi with 27 years of active duty — hopes to be part of the rebuilding effort.

“The goal has to go beyond stabilization, to reconciliation” in order “to overcome the hatreds and the wounds that started the last conflict,” Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff wrote in a series of e-mail interviews.

He will be meeting with international groups to see how the chaplains who will accompany the 7,000 U.S. troops that are expected to enter the war-torn region can help.

Building relationships among different groups has always been important for the 52-year old rabbi.

In fact, Resnicoff — who reports directly to NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark — was motivated to apply to rabbinical school because of his friendship with an Episcopal priest.

In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where Resnicoff — serving as a navy officer – – developed a close relationship with Chaplain Luther Westling, who became his role model.

“He was Christian through and through, and yet had enough Christian love to reach out and help me,” recalled Resnicoff, who is based in Stuttgart, Germany, and oversees U.S. chaplains serving in 89 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe.

Indeed, when Resnicoff applied to the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 1972, he was told he was the first applicant to the seminary “whose application packet had not had a letter from any rabbi `telling what a nice Jewish boy I was.’ Instead, it was a letter from an Episcopal priest telling what a nice Jewish boy I was,” writes Resnicoff.

During the years, Resnicoff — who credits his interest in the military to his father, an immigrant from the Soviet Union whom he calls “the most patriotic man” he has ever met — has seen firsthand the destruction of Vietnam and the devastation caused by the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

One of only 33 Jewish chaplains — out of a total of 4,000 overall — currently in the U.S. Armed Forces, Resnicoff first got involved with the military while in high school.

Most recently, Resnicoff, who holds the rank of U.S. Navy captain, witnessed the havoc wreaked on the lives of the Kosovar refugees when he visited refugee camps and attended a meeting of non-governmental organizations working in the region.

The conflicts in the Balkans have occupied much of his work in recent months. In addition to his visits with refugees at Camp Hope in Albania, he had Thanksgiving in Macedonia, Chanukah in Bosnia, and has frequently visited U.S. troops serving in the region.

In part as a result of his relationship with Westling, Resnicoff steadfastly believes that religious faith can serve as a force for reconciliation.

He is trying, as he puts it, to find an answer to the question: “Is there a way in which religious teachings and values can bring people together, not tear them apart?”

To this end, he focuses on interfaith dialogue.

In Bosnia, for example, he has been meeting with Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish leaders to see how these religious heads can play a role in building a long-lasting peace in one of the early flash points for tensions in the Balkans this decade.

“We, like the Kohanim, the priests in biblical times, are symbols that, although war is not the same as peace, neither is it completely different. Just because we cannot follow all rules of peace, and must do things in war that we would not normally do, we should not throw all rules to the wind,” he writes.

“My role is to ensure we protect not only our bodies, but our souls.”

Resnicoff’s interfaith work is not the only way that he has made his mark.

In the early 1980s, Resnicoff, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were both rabbis, was active in helping to establish the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, giving the closing prayer at a 1982 rally for the project that drew an estimated 200,000 people.

“The fact that there could be a memorial which made no statement about the war, but only symbolized the fact that all people, on all sides, would mourn those whose lives were lost, was a major achievement,” he said.

Because of Resnicoff’s observance of kashrut, he relies heavily on vitamins and diet drinks when he is stationed abroad. Resnicoff happened to be in Beirut when the U.S. Embassy was bombed there in October 1983 because he is observant. He had traveled there to conduct services after a Jewish member of the Marine Corps was killed by a sniper, and he stayed an extra day because it was Shabbat.

In the midst of the carnage the next morning, Resnicoff took off his kipah to wipe the dirt and blood from someone’s face. The yarmulke became so bloody that he discarded it. A fellow chaplain, a Roman Catholic, tore off a piece of his camouflage uniform and put it on Resnicoff’s head.

That story, part of Resnicoff’s report on the bombing that he sent to then- President Reagan, was included in a speech Reagan gave at a 1984 conference of the Moral Majority, and reportedly led to the 1985 Department of Defense edict that allows soldiers in uniforms to wear head-coverings.

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