A year ago, I was invited to speak at Central Synagogue for the occasion of Memorial Day. In my remarks, I focused on how this holiday is understood differently in our military and civilian communities. For the former, Memorial Day mourns the loss of friends and family members. For the latter, it anticipates the sun and fun of summer. The reason for this disconnect, I observed, was that our civilian community in general and our American Jewish community in particular lacked a personal connection to the military. It was hard to sit around grieving when we didn’t seem to know anyone (and especially anyone Jewish) who was even serving in our Armed Forces, let alone who had died while doing so.
Tragically, this Memorial Day has been very different. This year, everyone is aware that Justin Zemser, a Jewish midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD was among those killed in the derailment of Amtrak train 188 on May 12, as he traveled home to visit his family in New York. According to the extensive coverage of his death on the internet, Justin was the kind of person we all would like to be—intelligent, athletic and a mensch. Most impressively, however, Justin was actively engaged with Judaism. He served as vice-president of the Jewish Midshipman’s Club, headed by the Naval Academy’s Jewish Chaplain, Rabbi Yonatan Warren, and he had recently taken his first trip to Israel over spring break. He was also enrolled in Torah Mates, an educational program run by Oorah, an Orthodox organization for kiruv. “He was very interested in learning,” said his chavruta partner, Tzvi Aryeh Rubinfeld. “He wrote every word down, soaking everything in and getting a greater appreciation with each time.” The news of his death “hit us all very hard,” said Rabbi Joshua Sherwin, Rabbi Warren’s predecessor at the Naval Academy’s Jewish Chapel.
The more I read about Justin’s story, however, the more I noticed a PaRDeS-like layering of meaning to it. The p’shat is that Justin was an exemplary human being and his untimely death was a tragedy for those who knew and loved him. That much is obvious to everyone. But the remez is that Justin’s death created an opportunity not only for eulogizing, but for promoting the work of those Jewish organizations and professionals who worked to fill the Jewish needs in his life. Several articles hailed the success of Torah Mates in bringing learning to Justin’s busy life at the Naval Academy, and Rabbi Gerald Skolnick contributed a piece describing the work of Rabbi Warren, his son-in-law, in coordinating Justin’s funeral as a Jewish military chaplain serving in the U.S. Navy. At first, such advertising struck me as ill-timed in the extreme but I soon realized that the fatalities of the crash had also given new voice to long-time advocates for better safety in our rail systems. In the end, I concluded that Justin probably would have been proud that his death had offered an opportunity to implement life-saving changes to our transportation and to celebrate the Jewish teachers in his life.
That said, the larger meanings that are highlighted from tragic events aren’t entirely silver linings. The clouds of failure must be recognized as well. And if we as Reform clergy are going to join in the chorus of censure over Amtrak’s shortcomings, we must also honestly acknowledge the shortcomings of the Reform movement as the d’rash of Justin’s story. From the moment Justin enlisted in the military, our choices as Reform clergy over the last several decades all but ensured that the prominent Jewish voices in Justin’s life would not come from our clergy. The Jewish Army chaplain whom Justin would have met as a guest at West Point’s Jewish Warrior Weekend is Orthodox. The civilian Rabbi who coordinated Justin’s chavruta study is Orthodox. And the Jewish Navy chaplains who nurtured his identity at the Naval Academy and buried him at his funeral are Conservative.
This is not a coincidence. There are 10,000 Jewish men and women currently serving in our Active Armed Forces, and unnumbered more in our Reserve Components. Most of them come from Reform Jewish backgrounds. But of the sixty Jewish chaplains currently serving in the military, only seven are graduates of HUC-JIR. Until the middle of the Vietnam War, one in three Jewish military chaplains was Reform. Now that percentage is almost one in ten, and will soon be even smaller.
And so, what then is the sod? We Reform Jews care deeply about honoring our servicemen and women, both in life and death. As a chaplain who has served in both the part-time capacity of the National Guard and the full-time capacity of an overseas deployment, I can personally attest to the outpouring of support from my clerical colleagues for the Jewish life of my Soldiers—siddurim, books, and Kosher food all donated with impressive generosity. But we are just as deeply frightened by the military because it seems to us a foreign, massive engine of death. Though we mostly think about Memorial Day for its sales and its getaways, deep down we understand that it represents the worst possible moment in the life of a parent or child or sibling or spouse. And that fear tends to overshadow every other militarily related thought we might have.
Yet, if we focus on the lives that our fallen Jewish servicemen and women lived, we often find the most inspiring stories of a hunger for Jewish experience, as we saw with Justin Zemser, and a dedication to providing it, as we saw with his Chaplains. “When life is at its worst, at war, in peacetime, in times of joy or inexpressible pain,” writes Rabbi Skolnick, “they are there to provide help and solace.” We all hold within our hearts the honey of Jewish learning and we all care for those in need. On this Memorial Day, let us contemplate using that honey to nourish those who serve our country and represent our people in the rockiest of places.
Cantor David Frommer currently serves at Congregation Shomrei Torah, in Santa Rosa, CA and as a Battalion Chaplain in the California Army National Guard. He deployed overseas to Afghanistan and Kuwait in 2012.