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.