What does the Navy and the Jewish Outreach Institute have to do with one another? Well, for one, I am involved in both. This past Friday, in front of my co-workers, I was commissioned as a Navy Chaplain Reservist. That means for two days a month and two weeks a year, I will join a Navy unit as their Chaplain. This ceremony marked the culmination of six years of training, which took place on and off throughout rabbinical school. My training has taken me to Newport, RI, Camp Pendleton Corps base just south of San Diego, and to Japan. I have met Jews from all walks of life, from the Marine officer who went to Jewish day school with a friend of mine, to the sailor who had been exploring Judaism with his wife for many years and was thinking about converting. I have lead Torah studies, Shabbat and High Holiday services, and given a nonsectarian prayer aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean.
As a Navy Chaplain, I am both a rabbi, specifically, and a chaplain, generally. That means I do all the religious functions of a rabbi such as lead services and officiate at life cycle events and am also a resource and counselor to all sailors and Naval officers, no matter what their religion or background.
In my experience, some Jews, upon hearing that there is rabbi on the base or on the ship, will seek me out—just as there are Jews in the greater community who readily affiliate. But there are many more for whom their Judaism is part of their identity but they are not as comfortable expressing it. It is in reaching these Jews where my roles at JOI and as a Navy Chaplain overlap, because a major part of a chaplain’s job is to seek out sailors and engage them where they are, literally.
My time in the Navy is mostly spent walking around the base or ship, wherever I happen to be stationed, and talking to sailors. I ask them what they do, where they’re from, just getting to know them. Through these conversations, people open up to you, they tell you what their struggles are, what their needs are. And although my responsibility is to all sailors, I have something special to offer to the Jewish ones, and that is a connection to Judaism. This connection may be as simple as someone knowing there are rabbis in the Navy, or as in-depth as participation in services and other facets of Jewish life. What matters most as a chaplain and a rabbi in the Navy is being able to connect with sailors on many levels, wherever they are—both physically and spiritually. This, too, is at the core of the work that JOI does.
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