Foxhole Mitzvah: Ranking Rabbi Heads to Front

By Lisa Keys

Published April 04, 2003, issue of April 04, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

With a gentle voice, a doughy, pleasant face and a knit yarmulke atop thinning brown hair, Mitchell Ackerson is a sort of Every Man’s Rabbi.

Except for the camouflage uniform, that is.

The senior chaplain for the 220th Military Police Brigade and, incidentally, the senior rabbi of the army’s entire combat theater, Ackerson sat March 28 at the Crown Heights, Brooklyn, home of Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, an army pal who is state staff chaplain of the New York Army National Guard. The house was abuzz with activity; it was just minutes before the Sabbath began and just days before Ackerson’s scheduled deployment to Kuwait and Iraq.

Ackerson was more than ready for his April 2 departure. “We’re waiting to do our jobs,” he said, noting that logistical problems had delayed his leaving for five weeks. “It’s terribly frustrating. We’re needed, we feel we’re needed, and we’re sitting here in the U.S., waiting to get out. It gets you angry.”

With roughly 8,000 soldiers and a handful of chaplains to oversee, Ackerson expects to spend most of his days traveling down Iraq’s dusty, dangerous roads. “Fellow soldiers are dying, soldiers are wounded,” he said. “We want to be there for them.”

It is estimated that Jews constitute between .5% and 1% of deployed troops, or somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 soldiers. Yet as a chaplain, Ackerson’s duty is to minister anyone in need, Jewish or not. “Soldiers want the chaplain there,” he said. “I’ve been handing out Bibles, crucifixes, all sorts of things. My representation of God is not abstract — it’s, ‘I’m right here, next to you.’”

“Our motto is, ‘trust in your M-16, but trust in God more,’” he said.

Of the axiom “there are no atheists in foxholes,” Ackerson said, “That’s very, very true.” Religion in the military, he added, “is not a luxury, it is a necessity. This is war — people hate us, soldiers can use the extra help. War is a life-changing event. When the first bullet whizzes past, you realize this isn’t an adventure, it’s serious business. If you want adventure, go whitewater rafting.”

Asked what it’s like going to war amid a global, anti-war environment, Ackerson said, “No one prays for peace more than soldiers. The average soldier doesn’t want to go to war. They prepare for it, they train for it, and they’re prepared to die for our country.”

“The concept of peace by strength, we strongly believe that’s true,” Ackerson said. Nonetheless, he added, “we, as military personnel, have no political agenda. Our job is to follow the orders of the president and Congress. We let politicians and others argue the merits.”

Ackerson was never one to fantasize about a military career. Reared in the upscale Jewish enclave of Long Island’s Five Towns, he said, “I grew up thinking Jews didn’t serve in the army. That’s just not the case.”

In 1986, as a 28-year-old rabbinical student at Yeshiva University — he also holds masters degrees in education and social work — Ackerson was “looking for a decent summer job,” he said. “The Army said they had a great opportunity and they’ll pay me 3,000 to 4,000 bucks. I said, why not?”

At the time, Ackerson’s wife, Amy, joked that he should “drop and give me 10,” as they say in the army. He did three push-ups and collapsed. Basic training at Ft. Riley, Kan., whipped him into shape — “It was nothing,” he said. For the next seven years, Ackerson was on active duty, serving in Ft. Campbell, Ky., Ft. Bragg, N.C., and as a battalion chaplain during the first Gulf War.

Being an observant Jew out in the field is “a personification of what a Jew is,” Ackerson said. “I found I really enjoyed it. I’m a flexible guy. I’m not a picky eater. So I go out in the field and eat tuna fish for three, four days.” Other soldiers, he said, were particularly impressed by his religious resolve. “I came to realize how important it was to have a rabbi around.”

Wanting to send his children — now 14 and 17 — to day school, Ackerson eventually left active duty and joined the reserves, where he has worked in a variety of units in the greater Washington, D.C., area. A resident of Baltimore, Ackerson’s day job is director of Baltimore’s Life Bridge Health System, a network of hospitals and nursing homes. He also teaches Jewish history at Beth Tefillah Dahan High School.

Ackerson often speaks at Jewish schools about being a rabbi in the army. But thanks in part to “the overwhelming anti-military sense in the Jewish community,” Ackerson said, too many Jewish organizations and congregations hesitate to hire rabbis who serve in the reserves. “Those young men and women risk their lives for your liberties. Don’t you think those young people deserve [a rabbi] while you’re sitting at home, safe?”

“There’s a desperate need for more rabbis to join the military,” he said. Recently, while working out at his current base at Aberdeen, Md., Ackerson said, “a soldier came up to me and said he had been in the Army for 20 years and had never seen a rabbi. The fact is, a lot of soldiers never see a rabbi.”

According to Rabbi David Lapp, director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, there are 28 rabbis on active duty in the military. Seven have been deployed to the Gulf: one in the Air Force, one in the Marines, one in the Navy and four in the Army. There are about 50 rabbis in the reserves.

At 45, Ackerson notes he is two years shy of retirement eligibility. “I wish more people would step up to the plate,” he said.

By edict of the Geneva Convention, chaplains are non-combatants and do not carry weapons, despite having been trained in the military arts. “I have faith God will see me through this and see me home safely,” he said.

“Plus,” he added, “I have an assistant who is an excellent marksman.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.