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
CCAR Convention Rabbis

Celebrating the Class of 1964: “I am a Veteran”

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years.  In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it. Fifty years ago, I followed the advice of Yogi Berra. I chose to begin my career as an army Chaplain. Having done basic training in the summer before my senior year at HUC-JIR, I went directly to my duty station, Vicenza, Italy. As the first Jewish Chaplain to serve there since World War II, I not only served our three army posts but made monthly trips to an air force base in Aviano. I also made two trips to our naval base in Naples. My three years produced so many wonderful memories. I had the opportunity to represent the Jewish people at the dedication of a bell, melted down from cannons from World War I. I helped to raise funds to rebuild the synagogue in Florence when it was devastated by a flood. I was successful in bringing bagels into the commissaries.

Following my active duty, I returned to the United States and accepted a position with a congregation in Broomall, Pennsylvania. One day, I was invited for dinner with one of my congregants. During dinner, my host mentioned that he was a member of a general hospital reserve unit and that there was another general hospital looking for a Jewish Chaplain. So once again I put on my uniform and joined the 361st General Hospital. I would spend the next seventeen years as its Chaplain; beginning as a Captain and rising to the rank of Colonel. During my time with them, the unit became an evacuation hospital, very similar to MASH. Like MASH, we became very close; so close that one of our nurses, a Catholic, invited me to officiate at her wedding to a Quaker. During the wedding I mentioned that I was asked to do the wedding because we were friends; not realizing the double meaning to the Quakers.

I finally left my friends at the 361st Evacuation Hospital to join a civil affairs unit. The commander was concerned about having a Jewish Chaplain because in the event of war, our assignment would be Saudi Arabia. I assured him that it did not matter whether we wore the tablets or the cross, we would all be lumped together. Unlike any other unit in the military, a Chaplain is more than a Chaplain; I was the religious cultural officer to advise the commander about indigenous religions on the battlefield. It required me to acquire knowledge of the religions and mores of the people in our area of responsibility in the event of war.

It was this knowledge that led to my next assignment as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA) at the Army Chaplain School. An IMA is a reservist who trains with an active duty unit. My first assignment was to review the curriculum on world religions. As I was about to make a couple of recommendations, I was asked to do it as a staff study. My staff study was adopted by the Chaplain Corps. As a result, our Chaplains were better prepared to meet the challenges of our military engagements in the Middle East. My role changed when I became the first drilling IMA in the Chaplain Corps, which meant that in addition to my two weeks, I reported to the school once a month. In that capacity, I changed the way the IMAs were used. Instead of the school having to decide what to do with them when they arrived, we looked at the courses being offered throughout the coming year and determined the number of IMAs needed for each course. We then informed each one of when he would be coming and what he would be teaching.

Finally, I retired from the army but still longed to work with veterans and so I became a Chaplain at the Northport VA Medical Center and rose to the position of lead Chaplain. My proudest accomplishment at the medical center came about when a Vietnam Veteran approached me about planting a tree for a deceased Vietnam Veteran. I said “why just a tree? Why not a garden to honor all of our Vietnam Veterans? Little did I know what I had begun. There emerged a beautiful garden with a brick walkway, flags, an eternal light and a huge rock with a poem written by a Monsignor who had served as a sergeant in Vietnam. There is a bench dedicated to each of the military services. Our director was so impressed with the garden that he invited Dignity Memorial to bring the Vietnam Wall to our campus. Naturally we needed to build a stage and a patio for the programs around the wall’s visit to our campus. We now hold outdoor concerts there throughout the summer for our Veteran patients and for the local community. The Vietnam Veterans of America, who spearheaded this project, were not done. A Wall of Wars, with monuments to each of the twelve wars in which our Veterans served, will be completed this spring.

I also have taken an active role in both the community and on a national level for Chaplaincy. Among my achievements are the introduction of the recognition of specialization for Chaplains, editing a Book of Rituals, introducing spiritual grand rounds and helping to launch Spirit of Chaplaincy, a semi-annual newsletter to serve as the voice of Chaplaincy. I currently am the chair of the continuing education committee of the Chaplain Field Leadership Council and chair of the editorial board of Spirit of Chaplaincy. I have been honored by receiving the Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary’s Award for excellence in Chaplaincy. I also was nominated by the National Chaplain Center and received the Distinguished Service Award from the Military Chaplain Association (MCA). After receiving the award, I was invited to be a member of the MCA board of trustees. Upon the completion of my initial term on the board, I was elected to serve as its secretary. National Association of VA Chaplains has designated me to head all of the panels to consider those seeking certification in hospice and palliative care.

I am proud to be a Veteran and work with Veterans. As a tribute to them, I wrote a poem, “I Am A Veteran,” which hangs in our medical center and has been put in the Congressional Record.

 

I am a Veteran

I shivered that cold winter in Valley Forge
And rejoiced at the glorious surrender at Yorktown.
I wept as the flames engulfed Washington
And said “Never again.”
I wore blue and I bled red.
I wore gray and I bled red.
The blood I spilled was to reunite a nation
Of the people, by the people and for the people.
I am a veteran.

I was at Little Big Horn and I prayed;
I was at Wounded Knee and I prayed.
I prayed that one-day the old Americans
And the new Americans would be one people.
I was there to charge up the hill at San Juan;
Knowing that my country was emerging beyond its borders.
I was prepared to make the world safe for democracy.
Young and idealistic, I came to France
To turn back the hordes in this war to end all wars.
I am a veteran.

It was with disbelief that I became
A part of the day that will live in infamy.
Once more I said goodbye to those I loved to protect my country.
Across the vast desert I met the enemy.
I met him on island after island.
I kept my promise to return.
I met him on the beaches of Normandy.
I repelled him from the gates of Bastogne.
I freed thousands from the shadow of death.
I am a veteran.

A small nation cried out for help
And I came because others had been there for me.
A nation was saved.
Ask not what your country can do for you.
Ask what you can do for your country.
Inspired by these words, I responded with courage and bravery
In a war that was hot and a war that was cold.
I am a veteran.

From Ground Zero to the Pentagon to the fields of Pennsylvania,
I saw the carnage and heard the cries. At that moment,
I pledged my life, my property and my sacred honor
Until there will be peace and freedom on earth
For everyone, everywhere.
I am a veteran.

Categories
General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Celebrating the Class of 1964: “The Rabbi of Roundball”

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years.  In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.

In retrospect, my life 50 years since HUC-JIR ordination can be characterized as expressing the adage, “you can take the boy out of Brooklyn not Brooklyn out of the boy.” Wherever I have served, in the U.S. military as Senior Staff Chaplain at the NIH, in the Israeli Army reserves, as rabbi of congregations for 50+ years and in seven decades, the street smarts and my Yeshiva education and Brooklyn, New York upbringing have formed and informed my professional work, personal development and way of life. Never have I forsaken my earliest religious indoctrination known as competitive basketball.

I was raised with an older sister, now deceased, and a younger sister. I am the father of three daughters raised through the Israeli school system and the Israeli Army. They are bi-cultural, bilingual, advanced degreed – law, PhD in the states – and they are raising their own Israeli children, my eight grandchildren, in a similar manner – speaking Hebrew and English at home in Israel. Some colleagues know Noga Brenner Samia who lectures at Bina and is HUC-JIR Jerusalem educated. I’m in love with my kids and theirs.

My grandfather snatched my young cousins from the furnaces of the Holocaust and brought them to America. They played a significant part of my childhood shaping later sensibilities. I can truthfully say that WWII and the Holocaust have impacted profoundly on my own life. My “American Jewry & the Rise of Nazism” [YIVO Prize] and my book The Faith & Doubt of Holocaust Survivors [NJB Award Finalist], reflect that reality. I have written and lectured extensively on catastrophe survivors and abductees. To alleviate the heaviness of these subjects, I published humor, including a book called “The Jewish Riddle Collection,” which is now being enlarged and republished. Humor has been an important part of my ministry, whether in the NIH Clinical Center among patients or in congregational life. My children’s book, Escape in Eight Days, scores as an adventure story at the time of the Shoah.

My father was a pious orthodox Jewish man; my mother was a typical Jewish mother, proud, loud and aggressive. My name, Reeve, means contentious, argumentative, contrarian accounting for and justifying the adage teaching k’shem hu. Likely, that is why I and no one else of my Yeshiva crowd departed orthodoxy for Reform. I was Yeshiva raised, traversed non-orthodox religious denominations, and found my spiritual home as a Reform klal yisrael rabbi. For all its deficiencies, I love and am grateful for the Reform religious home – without which – who knows?

I have written extensively: poetry, articles in our CCAR Journal, books and essays on the sociology of religion and the sociology of recreation, as well as research essays on the works of the “discredited” Immanuel Velikovsky, now published in my newest book on the natural catastrophes in the ancient world. I think the poetry I have written about my family discloses the me-est me. I am editor of Jerusalem Poetry of the 20th Century. My most recent book, While the Skies were Falling: The Exodus and the Cosmos, addresses the global reach of the biblical catastrophes and brings forth scientific and forensic technical evidence for their reality.

In my early years of rabbinical seminary, with several classmates, (Sandy Lowe among them whom I cared for deeply) I began a serious course of psychotherapy. I’d recommend it for our Jewish professionals. My hobbies from childhood on include raising turtles of threatened species and releasing them in the wild in their geographical region. Why would a turtle become my totem? Because a turtle makes progress only when it sticks its neck out. I’m also proud of having been credited in the zoological literature for providing the name for the third biblical vulture, “The Israel Desert Condor.”

Over the years I invented a number of inclusionary and wheelchair accessible, non-aggressive ball-playing sports. For example, Bankshot Basketball, is now being played in 300+ cities in the USA and around the world, in hospitals, camps, schools, parks. Ber Sheva, Hod Hasharon and Herzlia feature the sport. In an article about Bankshot, Sports Illustrated, bestowed upon me the title, “The Rabbi of Roundball”, about which I continue to be playfully reminded. That distinction such as it is, like my movie role in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, provoke kibitzing by family in every Seder or simcha gathering.

The sport Bankshot has been introduced and now is played in Kuwait. I often wonder what the good folks in Kuwait playing the sport might be thinking when they go to the internet and learn that Bankshot was created by a rabbi. The website, bankshot.com, displays many courts as well as photographs of my Bankboard pieces called SportStructures hanging in the Boston Children’s Museum, MOMA, and other museums exhibiting the pieces as interactive participatory sculpture. The Spirit of the ADA Award is one among a number of such recognitions with which I have been honored for Inclusion of people with disabilities. I’m proud of my work with and for disabled people.

In 1966, I became the first rabbi to teach at St. Vincent College and Seminary in Latrobe, PA offering courses in Introductory Judaism and Jewish Religious Thought. Moving my family to Israel, I lived there for some 12 years. I presently serve as rabbi for Bet Chesed Congregation in Bethesda MD. My article, an alternative methodology to CPE, entitled: “Nons, Nunyas, Appreciative Inquiry and the Aged,” – based essentially on AI theory – in The Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging came about as an outgrowth of my NIH hospital chaplain experiences and responsibilities. My book, Jewish, Christian, Chewish or Eschewish: Interfaith Marriage Pathways for the New Millennium, is an outgrowth of my work with interfaith couples and families. It has meant a great deal to a goodly number of readers in the greater Washington area and elsewhere. The book is offered without cost at reevebrenner.com and is intended to be read before an intro to Judaism.

Rutgers University Transaction Press is scheduled to re-publish The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors, previously published by Macmillan Free Press and Aronson, with a new introduction I wrote presenting Holocaust survivors’ considered views of the philosophy of our post-Holocaust philosophers, essentially their “repudiation” of the theology of mainstream Jewish thinkers concerning the Holocaust.

In sum, I think of myself as a project-oriented kind of funny guy and rabbi and find myself energized by self-imposed projects as challenges to take on and to enjoy the process.