JTS Alumni in the Military

On December 22, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue," the 17-year-old military law that prevented LGBT men and women from serving openly in the United States military. The honor of delivering the opening invocation at the signing ceremony went to Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, a career military chaplain who had applied to The Rabbinical School (RS) of The Jewish Theological Seminary while still serving in the Vietnam War and who was ordained at JTS in 1976.

Throughout his years as a rabbinical student, Rabbi Resnicoff met frequently with Abraham Joshua Heschel, professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at The Rabbinical School of JTS from 1946 to 1972 and one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century. Over coffee, the student and his teacher discussed Judaism and military participation. Heschel was opposed to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, but was intrigued by young Resnicoff's strong belief in Judaism and commitment to the military. The combination of these two loyalties was an important part of Resnicoff's identity and his education at JTS.

Like Rabbi Resnicoff, JTS alumni now serving in the United States military are continually reminded of the invaluable skills and experiences provided by their years at JTS. Among many other programs, counseling courses helped the rabbinical graduates develop the skills they would eventually need to guide their fellow soldiers. JTS alumni are today pleased to note that these counseling courses are being further developed and nuanced at the new and accredited Center for Pastoral Education at JTS. Rabbi Barry Baron (RS '88), a colonel in the United States Army Reserve, says, "Having at my disposal the Jewish knowledge that I gained at JTS has allowed me in various situations to say the right words or offer the right message at the right time. In particular, I found it helpful to convey the message that it is okay to get angry with God. When people asked me, 'Why is this happening?' I was able to formulate answers based on what I was taught by my teachers at JTS."

Insights on how to approach Jewish texts, traditions, and rituals and Jewish congregants left a lasting impression on JTS rabbinical students and taught them how to serve an even broader congregation. Rabbi Baron remembers attending services on Saturday, September 15, 2001, the first Shabbat following the September 11 attacks on America. At one point, a gentleman spoke to him, and said that Ground Zero smelled just like the burning bodies at Auschwitz. At that moment, Rabbi Baron realized just how important his job truly was. Today, he is grateful for the solid support he received from then JTS Chancellor and Korean War Army chaplain, Ismar Schorsch.

Melissa Friedman, director of JTS's Diane and Howard Wohl Office of Alumni Affairs says, "JTS alumni never cease to amaze me. With each generation, they continue to serve, improve, and enhance our local, national, and global Jewish and secular communities. It comes as no surprise that our alumni are doing the same for men and women who serve our country here and overseas in the armed forces."

Andrea Shelton (List College '08) is a First Lieutenant in the United States Army serving a yearlong tour of duty in Iraq. She's emphatic when she says, "The JTS faculty was incredibly positive and supportive of my decision. Dr. Burton Visotzky [Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies and director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of JTS] put me in contact with the Jewish Welfare Board so that I could ask them lots of questions about how compatible military life would be with a fairly observant lifestyle."

Being a military chaplain presents a unique opportunity to act as a source of guidance and support for other Jews, but also for soldiers of many religions. With JTS's historic reputation for encouraging and participating in interreligious dialogue, JTS alumni joined the military with a decided advantage. Rabbi Larry Bazer (RS '93), a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, says that in the Army you are a chaplain for all faith groups. He has just been deployed to Afghanistan (February 2011), where he will serve as the senior Jewish chaplain in the region and assist multifaith chaplains in providing religious services. Rabbi Bazer emphasizes that one of the real highlights of being in the Army is the fact that it offers a chance to gain additional interfaith work experience, and to mentor upcoming chaplains of all religions. Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth (LC '03, RS '10), a lieutenant in America's Navy Reserve, adds that in the military you are there to give the soldiers context. He says most of what he does is morale boosting, not just religious counseling, and that chaplains are responsible for the spiritual and mental well-being of the units in which they serve, regardless of anyone's religious background.

Because they are in the military to support all faith groups, Jewish chaplains must know the rituals and traditions of other religions in addition to those of Judaism. Rabbi Kaiserblueth reports that during Ramadan, he had to learn the religious reasons why it was okay for Muslim sailors to forgo fasting during training or combat. He also remembers a time when he encountered a Muslim sailor who did not have enough halal food options onboard the ship. Rabbi Kaiserblueth approached the ships' cooks on behalf of the sailor and asked that they serve the sailor the same kosher food options they served him.

Similarly, chaplains of other faiths must also know about Judaism in order to counsel Jewish soldiers. There are only 64 Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military. It is therefore unlikely that a soldier will encounter a rabbi on any regular basis. Andrea Shelton says that "the unit chaplain has been incredibly supportive and helpful. He has put me in contact with programs like Aleph [the Aleph Institute addresses the pressing religious, educational, humanitarian, and advocacy needs of individuals in the military and institutional environments] that sent me a lulav and etrog for Sukkot and prayer books for the high holidays."

Being an observant Jew in the military can present some unique challenges, but most JTS alumni see those challenges as opportunities. Rabbi Baron explains that being observant in the military can sometimes require creativity and flexibility. At the same time, all military rabbis known to him keep kosher and observe Shabbat. He says that it is necessary to keep in mind that there are halachic leniencies for soldiers serving in combat zones. For the most part, every soldier has to make use of those at one time or another. Rabbi Kaiserblueth points out that, in general, the military is respectful of the way in which personnel observe, but many people do not know about Jewish culture and traditions. Just like the population of the United States, the population of the military is predominantly Christian. In a way, says Rabbi Kaiserblueth, the Jewish chaplains are like ambassadors educating others about Judaism.

Many alumni now serving in the military agree that their JTS rabbinical training makes them very well suited to the military, because so much of military life is also governed by a set of laws, rituals, and traditions. Rabbi Sean Gorman (RS '98), a Lieutenant-Commander in the United States Navy, says, "In both, there is an understanding of tradition and of ritual. To wear a military uniform in a certain way strikes me as similar to putting on and taking off tallit and tefillin always in precisely the same order. To be a Jewish Marine is the happy intersection of both of those rich traditions." Rabbi Kaiserblueth agrees that the military may be similar to Judaism in some respects, but he notes with a smile that there is one important difference: while Judaism encourages you to learn through questioning the rules, challenging authority in the military is definitely frowned upon.

One of the most powerful experiences for military chaplains is bonding with their fellow soldiers. Rabbi Kaiserblueth says that the men and women who serve know that chaplains are there selflessly, and since chaplains are not allowed to carry arms, the soldiers are very protective. Chaplains have many responsibilities when working with members of the military, and make an effort to build trust. Many of the men and women they serve with are very young and seek out chaplains to help support them through the new and sometimes difficult experiences they are navigating. Others are much older and come to chaplains to discuss their feelings about what is happening at home in their absence. Providing this kind of assistance is exactly what being a rabbi is all about.

Though he is now retired, Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff does not forget the lessons he learned as a military chaplain: "It was an honor to be part of that historic ["don't ask, don't tell" repeal ceremony] in a room filled with hundreds of men and women not only happy, but also proud: proud of their nation. It was a reminder, as I tried to say in my invocation, that our lives can make a difference and the future can be better than the past."