I have had only two places on my mind, as in the song by Hannah Senesh: the sand and the sea. My first 25 years as a military chaplain with the US Navy took me from the beach of Camp Pendleton, California to overlook beaches in Japan, Vietnam, Great Lakes, Illinois, Hawaii, and Micronesia, to the banks of the Potomac, the Great Mississippi, and ultimately to a beach off the coast of Kuwait. I served on, under, above, and once even beyond the atmosphere in Naval vessels. My time was split between sailors and Marines, using different conveyances to reach, greet, and preach. As well as the hatch, match, and dispatch we glibly talk about.
The sands of Florida has been in my shoes these last 25 years. I have filled in at giant URJ congregations of over 500 families, but I am most proud of maintaining a relationship with a congregation of less than 100 families in Central Florida. I have taught college classes, conducted life cycle events, conducted services, lead small groups, and have been interviewed for local, national, and international media. Maintaining Judaism for generations still is my goal.
My first baby naming at a Marine base became the baby naming for the grandchild of that same family almost twenty years later at the same military facility.
In Florida, I trained an adult to be bat mitzvah only to learn of her birth in Shanghai, China and imprisonment with her parents at concentration camps. I know five generations of that growing family.
The CCAR Committee on Chaplaincy fund allowed me to attend Conventions. CCAR voted against the Vietnam War but made provisions for Reform rabbi chaplains.
I met a lady at a Reform congregation not distant from Camp Pendleton, California, my first active duty military base. Three years and one tour later, I parlayed the 100th CCAR Convention in Cincinnati to a Navy-paid round trip from Japan to get married to her. It was sweet hearing rabbis sing in Yiddish at the Chinese restaurant to my bride and me.
At Great Lakes, Illinois, I encountered more changes in attitude. This time, my commanding officer was upset by learning of my conversations with Rabbi Bertram Korn, the first Jewish flag officer chaplain. The CO believed I violated a chain of command as my supervisor priest did not communicate personally with his ecclesiastical superior. I requested a transfer and was given Hawaii. My tour lasted five years. I went from Oahu all the way to Diego Garcia and back almost every quarter. The schedule was arranged that I conducted Friday night services on Guam, boarded either a military bird or a Pan Am flight, and was in time for Friday night services in Honolulu the same calendar day. A thrill of the tour was to have a three star general be my cantor.
I want to mention five other members of the Conference who were with me throughout my military career and into civilian rabbinate. Jim Apple, John Rosenblatt, z”l, and Bernard Frankel. We followed each other in duty stations or geographic locations.
While I was assigned to the National Navy Medical Center at Bethesda, I was called upon to be present at the return of the bodies from the Beirut bombing at Dover AFB. I was the only military active duty Navy chaplain there throughout the entire process. I was honored and humbled to perform funerals for non-Jewish personnel whose families felt affinity for me. Rabbi E. Arnold Siegel, my classmate, was assigned to the Marine unit which suffered the loss and ministered at Camp Lejeune.
Another classmate, Norman Auerbach, was injured on duty in Okinawa. He became my replacement at Bethesda because of his injuries.
In Millington, Tennessee I fulfilled my duties as a member of the CCAR Commission on Chaplaincy representing the Reform Movement in creation of a unified curriculum for all military Jewish religious schools and the black prayer book produced by the military that we used in Desert Shield/Storm at my last duty station, again based at Camp Pendleton. I have always wanted to maintain and preserve Judaism at every place where I served. If not for me, for the next generation.
Rabbi Fred Natkin is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. In addition to his military service, he faithfully served Congregation Mateh Chaim in Palm Bay, Florida. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 2022. CCAR rabbis can register here.