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. 


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. 


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.

1   2