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chaplains Death High Holy Days

Love and Washing: Preparing for the Days of Awe

The time of death was 6:55 pm, last night.  The patient was 2 weeks old.  Her name means “journey,” her mother explained. As the doctor and nurses prepared to detach the tubes and wires from her tiny body, her tearful family gathered around.  In a soft voice, the head nurse told the family that after the extubation, they would bathe the baby’s body, so the mother could hold her.  Suddenly, one of the aunties looked up and said, “And you said I could help bathe her.”  The nurse agreed firmly.

I looked at the tiny body, oozing and bloody, yet inconceivably pure and innocent. I thought of Psalm 51.7: “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”

As we work through this month of Elul, preparing each in our own way for those trembling Days of Awe in which we confront our mortality and lead others in confronting their own, I pondered the relationship between love and washing.  The well-known drash on the name of this month, “Ani l’ Dodi, v’Dodi li,” underscores the sentiment that we approach God with love, not fear, as we search ourselves and inventory our transgressions.  Coming up with this list of smudges and soot what are we to do now?

Not until last night, could I fully conceive of what the relationship between forgiveness and love might feel like, what might it look like?  Love bathes. Love washes away- like a warm basin, like a soapy washcloth, like a gentle waterfall.

Showering with a lover, drawing a bath for a child, performing taharah – love cleans.

As we prepare for these Yamim Noraim only weeks away, let us go about the gut wrenching and the mundane, the trivial and the sacred, the parts we like and those we don’t, knowing that God’s gentle hands are already gathering perfumed soaps and oils, warm towels and holy loofahs, in anticipation of washing us clean.

Rabbi Leah Cohen Tenenbaum, D.Min, C’2000 serves as a chaplain at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Categories
chaplains Passover Pesach

Welcoming Elijah in Iraq

During my 38 years of military service, I had the honor of traveling twice to Iraq to celebrate Passover with deployed service-members, and numerous times to Kuwait.  In every location, soldiers were so grateful that a rabbi would travel all the way from the US to share the seder with them.  So many thought that they were the only Jew within hundreds of miles, and the familiar prayers and songs created an instant sense of community.

In 2005, I was especially moved by the ritual of spilling wine from our cups as we recalled the plagues in Egypt.  During a war, it is an all too available temptation to dehumanize the enemy. Sometimes it feels like a necessary part of preparing for battle.  As we participated in this ancient ritual, we were reminded that it is neve r appropriate to rejoice over the suffering of others, even our oppressors and even those who may be trying to kill us.  Removing the wine from our cups reinforced this message that our joy is diminished when we contemplate the necessary pain that was part of our liberation.  

At Forward Operating Base Taji, the lights kept coming on and off as the generators ceased to function, and I quipped that we were reenacting the plague of darkness.  After the service, one young woman told me that “It was almost like being at home.”  In 2006, at Forward Operating Base Sykes we began the seder and were introducing ourselves, when one participant said-

“I’m glad that we are locked in this CONNEX behind closed doors in a relatively secure place, for our own protection.”  When we opened the door for Elijah, there was a moment of hesitation and a collective intake of breath.  Wow!  There was a real feeling of risk and some danger, but I decided that it was critical that we open the door and proudly sing Eliyahu HaNavi.  We read about other doors in history, flung open by the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusaders, the Nazis.   It was a powerful, powerful moment and a huge assertion of freedom in that hostile place.  Our celebration of freedom was especially meaningful as we were, once again, fighting for freedom from tyranny.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell serves Temple Chai in Phoenix, AZ and currently holds the rank of Colonel as a military chaplain in the United States Army Reserve.

Categories
chaplains spirituality Torah

It’s Alright To Cry – Parashat Vayigash

Those of us of a certain age will remember Rosey Grier, the pro-football player known for his penchant for needlepoint.  His large size and reputation on the field, made him ideal to perform a song on the Free To Be You And Me children’s album entitled:  IT’S ALRIGHT TO CRY.

It’s alright to cry, crying gets the sad out of you

Raindrops from your eyes, it might make you feel better…

Grier’s song gives the listeners (children and adults) permission to cry and to express our emotions

I wish more people would heed these words.  Crying is a natural response to stress, sadness, fear and the like. It provides both a physical and emotional release after which one does tend to feel better!

There is some science behind the notion that shedding tears of emotion is essential health. In Crying: the Mystery of Tears Dr. William H. Frey teaches:  “Emotional tearing may be similar to the other excretory processes, which remove waste products or toxic materials from the body. My formal study of crying began with the theory that emotional tears play a precise and central role in helping restore the chemical balance of the body by excreting substances produced by the body in response to stress. . . . Our studies on the chemical composition of tears have revealed that tears contain higher concentrations of manganese” (William H. Frey, Crying: The Mystery of Tears [Winston Press, 1985], pp.12-13).

Our discomfort with our emotions leads us to hold them in.  According to Dr. Frey, crying is one of the ways our bodies find their equilibrium, making us feel better. Not crying, or denying  to give expression to our feelings, can be injurious to health.

Our ancestor Joseph got this message.  In Parashat Vayiggash, Judah pleads with Joseph to free their brother Benjamin and offers himself up as a replacement.  Joseph is so moved by Judah’s request that he reveals himself to his brothers, forgives them for selling him into slavery, and takes steps to reunite the family in Egypt.

Judah initiates the reconciliation when  “vayigash” he drew near to Joseph.  A midrash notes that Judah drew close both physically and emotionally in that step.  He had grown from the conniving jealous man of his younger days into the mature leader, a voice of compassion and advocate of shalom bayit (Genesis Rabbah).  The text is explicit in describing Joseph’s feelings, ‘his sobs were so loud…’ (Gen 45:2) and ‘he [Joseph] embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept’ (Gen 45:14).

I’ve always been impressed by how Joseph didn’t hold back his tears.  Here he was, one of the most powerful men in Egypt, and he didn’t feel the need to ‘stay strong’.  Instead, he ‘let it all out’, and in doing so, communicated to his brothers that he forgave them for their mistreatment of him. And by Judah drawing near/approaching Joseph as he did, the door for reconciliation was open.

I cry often.  And I frequently make other people cry.  I am not depressed or ill, nor am I known to inflict cruelty upon others.  In my work as the JF&CS community chaplain, I  visit those experiencing illness and decline on a daily basis.  I frequently recite the mishebeirach for healing, after which the patient or a family member is often moved to tears.  I am aware that they may be experiencing pain, fear or sadness, or perhaps are grappling with a horrible diagnosis, or facing an unknown period of treatment.  So the tears make sense.  Lots of folks are embarrassed or apologetic for their outburst, but I see it as a good sign.  They are giving needed expression to pent up emotions, communicating the fullness of their humanity.

Science, the Torah, and Rosey Grier all tell us, “it’s alright to cry.”  May we heed these words.

Rabbi Judith Beiner serves as the Community Chaplain at JF&CS in Atlanta. 

Categories
chaplains Rabbis

Reflections on 50 Years as a Rabbi

I was ordained a rabbi on the Shabbat before the Six-Day War erupted in Israel in 1967.  Little did I realize then how powerfully that event would transform American Reform Jews for generations. Since that time, we have reclaimed once-discarded traditional rituals and have embraced Zionism enthusiastically.

After ordination, I became an Army chaplain for two years, first at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. In that capacity, I officiated at all Jewish burials at Arlington National Cemetery, many of which involved Vietnam casualties- a painful, frustrating assignment. I was told the name of the deceased and the grave site, but nothing more. Yet I was expected to eulogize the deceased when I arrived at the grave site. After that experience, I committed myself to learning as much as I can about the deceased prior to the service to give him/her an appropriate final tribute.

While at HUC-JIR, I envisioned becoming a congregational rabbi, with an emphasis on scholarship, preaching, and teaching and without much attention to social action. Vietnam changed all that.

At Ft. Belvoir, as a military officer, I became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and was punished for my actions by being reassigned to Korea.

Discharged in June, 1969, I interviewed for seven pulpits, three of which were assistant-ships. During that process, I discovered that I am not temperamentally suited to be an assistant rabbi and needed a solo congregation. My first pulpit was Temple B’nai Israel, in Galveston.

I continued my anti-war protests, in Galveston and received considerable affirmation from many members of my congregation. While engaged in social justice causes, I still maintained a commitment to scholarship. In 1975, I received my DHL degree, having written a dissertation on the noted medieval biblical commentator, Obadiah Sforno.

In 1976, I became Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, where I served for 26 years. I succeeded Rabbi David Jacobson, who had served the congregation for 38 years. He and his wife, Helen, were revered community leaders who supported and encouraged me during my tenure. I have tried to do the same with my successors.

From 1984 to 1990, I was editor of the Journal of Reform Judaism (now the CCAR Journal), and am grateful I could disseminate the wisdom and insights of my colleagues through this medium.

I often felt the sting of subtle anti-Semitism during my formative years. Therefore, I pledged to devote my life to combating bigotry and prejudice and to advancing interfaith understanding wherever I served. Fortunately, both Galveston and San Antonio are renowned for their healthy inter-religious climate.

I have also tried to avoid the turf battles which plague many Jewish communities and to cultivate mutually respectful relationships with rabbinical colleagues and members of all other local synagogues.

Since my retirement in 2002, Lynn and I have spent our summers at Chautauqua Institution. At this “adult brain and soul camp,” as Lynn calls it, in western New York State, I am a member of the staff of the Department of Religion. I was once named Theologian-in-Residence and have lectured there frequently. Chautauqua is the ideal setting for my interfaith work. Though its foundation is Christian, about 30% of its current participants are Jewish.

Serving as a rabbi for half a century has been a privilege and an honor. In no other calling does one gained instant entry into people’s lives, during their times of trials and triumphs.

Having been raised in western Pennsylvania, I still can’t believe that I have spent my entire civilian rabbinate in Texas. The Jewish people here are warm, gracious, and caring, but many are culturally more Texan than Jewish and tend to be more politically conservative than elsewhere.

I close with the insightful observation, “Dor dor v’dorshav– Each generation requires its own interpreters.” My rabbinate has been exceedingly rewarding and fulfilling. Yet, I realize that the Reform Jewish world has changed so significantly since my ordination 50 years ago that I doubt if I could be an effective pulpit rabbi today. Fortunately, HUC-JIR is producing a new generation of rabbis who are more attuned to the needs and aspirations of contemporary Reform Jewry.

Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl is celebrating fifty years as a CCAR Rabbi.

Categories
chaplains Rabbis

What it Means to Be American: Reflections on Memorial Day

Francis Salvador was the first Jewish American to die in service to America.  He was the kind of person that Jacob Marcus z”l  would have talked about.  He was born in England to a family that was Spanish and Portuguese.  He left his wife and four children to come to the New World in 1773.  He was the first Jew elected to the Provincial Congress in the colonies, and was an advocate for independence.  He was also a slave-owner.  On July 31, 1776 he was shot in a battle against British loyalists and Cherokees and scalped.  He died at age 29.

Salvador could be described in many ways in our age of identity politics.  He was an immigrant.  A Jew. A revolutionary.  A racist slave-owner.  A Settler.  A politician.  An adventurer.  A businessman.  A father and husband.  A soldier.  He was all of these things, and none of them.

In this moment in our nation’s history that finds our country more bitterly divided than in my lifetime, and almost as divided as it has ever been in our history, it is worthwhile to remember Salvador, and those like him.  The descriptions of those with whom we disagree has degenerated into easy hate-filled epithets but the reality is so much more complex than that.

On Memorial Day, we pause for a moment and to remember those who have given their life for this Republic, and the cost of building and preserving it.  Memorial Day began as a day to decorate the graves of those who died in our Civil War.  It was meant to remember those of the Confederacy as well as the Union. In life, they were native born and immigrant, Irish and English, German and French, Jew and Christian, pro-slave and anti-slave.  Freed slaves and those who had enslaved them.  But in death, they were equal.  It has been this way since this nation was first imagined. In death, they were, ultimately, Americans.

If we could all truly appreciate the significance of this, perhaps our political conversations would be more focused on the issues and less on heaping hate on those who disagree with us.  The ideal of what America means, and what it could be, has inspired men and women to give their lives for 240 years, since the death of Francis Salvador.  For 240 years, America’s sons and daughters have given all for a country governed by law and committed to freedom.  It is up to us to decide whether there will be another 240 years to come.

Rabbi Steven Ballaban serves as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. 

 

Categories
chaplains Rabbis

Memorial Day: Reflections of a Military Chaplain

“It’s almost like being home.”  This was the response of a young Soldier at Forward Operating Base Taji, Iraq, following the Passover seder in 2005.  As I traveled throughout the country, seder participants were amazed and touched that a rabbi would reach out to them in their remote locations to create a small island of familiar and comforting ritual.  Privates sitting next to Captains, it didn’t matter.  Singing Dayenu together transcended the usual barriers of rank and assignment.

2005 was a rough year in Iraq.  A small contingent of Jewish Soldiers serving at Abu Ghraib prison surrounded me in a diamond formation, offering protection as we walked their camp.  I journeyed to Forward Operating Base Sykes, where the seder was held inside the secure area of the Tactical Operations Center.  As we began, one Sergeant remarked that he was glad we were behind closed doors for our own protection.  It was quite a tense moment when we opened the door for Elijah, but a triumphant moment as we asserted our right as Americans to freedom of religious expression.

I had the privilege of providing Jewish religious support for Passover in Iraq in 2005 and 2006.  The largest gathering was 41 folks, the smallest was me and 2 others.  Every encounter underlining the escape from tyranny was exponentially meaningful in those heady days of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

As a military chaplain, most of our duties have little to do with the Jewish community.  Chaplains serve all the members of our units, Family members, and DA civilians.  Being the first chaplain to establish a US Army Reserve Regional Support Command was a challenging growth experience, establishing standard operating procedures, and supervising a growing staff serving 7 southwestern states.  We administered the Army’s Strong Bonds program, developing and implementing retreats for single Soldiers, Couples, and Families.

The Army has provided leadership training and opportunities I could never have experienced in the civilian world.  In 2011 I was selected to attend the US Army War College, and in 2013 I received a Master of Strategic Studies degree following the most demanding academic experience of my life.  Serving in the reserve component has allowed me to maintain my focus on my beloved congregation, while simultaneously creating a window into the unique environment of the United States Army.

An assignment to US Army Europe allowed me to travel in France and Germany, and craft a training conference for Jewish lay leaders.  With the 164th Corps Support Group I spent 3 weeks in South Korea, where I attended a Purim Ball at the Seoul Hilton.  After the attack on the World Trade Center, I was mobilized for a year of service as the 112th Military Intelligence Brigade Chaplain.  Now, as the Command Chaplain of the 807th Medical Command, I mentor and provide training for 140 Chaplains, Chaplain Assistants, and Chaplain Candidates, serving 11,700 Soldiers in 26 states.

Yet- it is the moments with deployed Jewish service members that make my heart sing.  I have been to Kuwait for Passover on numerous occasions, and spent 2 Chanukkah seasons traveling in Afghanistan.  Night after night Soldiers came together to light candles, sing, share stories, and build community.  One Sergeant came every night and stayed until midnight.  His Soldiers complained, “Why do you have to go there every night?  What do you do?”  He replied, “We sing, we laugh, we tell stories.”  “Well,” they questioned him, “You can’t do that here with us?”  “Yeah,” he concluded, “but there they get my jokes!”  He later confided, “I didn’t realize how I was longing to connect to my people.”

Being a Jew in the military can be so isolating.  As a Jewish chaplain, I bring folks together who often thought that they were the only Jewish person within hundreds of miles.  And I hope that the connection we establish will endure long after I have left that location.

Judaism is not a pacifist tradition.  We believe in the right- the obligation- of self-defense.  The Torah itself recognized the need for chaplain support in the military.  “Before you join battle, the priest shall come forward and address the troops.”  (Deuteronomy 20:2)  It is taken for granted that the troops have spiritual needs that require the unique perspective of religious leaders.  My 37 year career playing that role for our Soldiers today has, indeed, been a humbling honor and privilege.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is a Chaplain (Colonel) in the United States Army Reserve and currently serves as Command Chaplain of the 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) in Salt Lake City, Utah.  She is also the Associate Rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix, AZ. 

Categories
chaplains

Memorial Day: Reflections from Chaplain David Frommer

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.

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Categories
General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Rabbis in the Military

Front row, l to r: Heather Borshof, Emily Rosenzweig, Sarah Schechter, Phillip Schechter Second row, l to r: David Frommer, Larry Freedman, Harold Robinson, Frank Waldorf (missing: Bonnie Koppell and Karen Berger)
Front row, l to r: Heather Borshof, Emily Rosenzweig, Sarah Schechter, Phillip Schechter
Second row, l to r: David Frommer, Larry Freedman, Harold Robinson, Frank Waldorf
(missing: Bonnie Koppell and Karen Berger)

10,000 Jews are in the uniform of the United States Armed Forces, and CCAR rabbis are among those who serve their spiritual and emotional needs. Those CCAR military chaplains and the other Jewish chaplains of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Veterans Administration gathered last week at the Commodore Levy Center of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Brought together by the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, about forty rabbis, cantors and lay leaders met for training, learning, praying and chevruta.  CCAR member and retired Rear Admiral, Rabbi Harold Robinson, directs the Jewish Chaplains Council and led the retreat. I was pleased to represent the CCAR officially and to sit with our colleagues for two days. We heard from the chief chaplains of the Navy, Army and Air Force, who spoke about the reductions in the Armed Forces and in the chaplaincy. Despite this, they said, there is still a huge need for Jewish chaplains. They also said that Jewish chaplains, unlike many other chaplains, genuinely understand the interreligious nature of chaplaincy work. Also in attendance was Major Reuben Livingstone, the only Jewish chaplain in the British Forces.  At the end of the retreat we were joined by the Chaplains Council Plenum, the advisory body for the JWB, at which our colleagues Rabbis Phil Schechter and Frank Waldorf were present. I was struck by several things: by the extraordinary devotion of the Reform Movement’s chaplains to the servicemen and women whom they care for; by the youthfulness of our Reform chaplains; and by the far greater number of women over men in the Reform chaplaincy. For over 150 years Jewish chaplains have provided spiritual and emotional support for our men and women in the military. Every member of the CCAR should take great pride in the ways that our colleagues carry on this tradition of caring, leadership and sacrifice. May God bless all the deeds of their hands.