The incessant talking heads on our television sets commenting ad nauseam about Operation Iraqi Freedom have slowed to a trickle. The screaming newspaper headlines closely following the progress of the war have decreased in font size and have become a mere whimper. Troops have begun to rapidly leave the battlefield with many having already returned to their homes. The intensity of postings on listservs such as “The Brave” has decreased. And Passover, too, has come and gone. We are now almost back to business as usual.
Our communal concern for Jewish service members has rapidly followed suit and is now back to its normal activity. There are no cries of, “How will Jewish service members observe Shabbat this week?” or “What will they do for Shavuot?” or “Where will they observe Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur?” Since the crisis has ended, we no longer worry about Jewish men and women serving in our armed forces. Gone as well is communal awareness of the military responsibilities necessary to preserve the freedoms we enjoy as American citizens. After all, Jewish young adults go to college — not to the military.
Sadly enough, this is the picture we now face. Local communal interests and concern for Israel have reclaimed the spotlight of the American Jewish agenda. Yet Jews continue to serve our country under arms every day of every year. The Jewish military member’s needs have not gone away. We still have too few rabbis in uniform, a lack of published materials to distribute, and a paucity of concern throughout the American Jewish community. Until the next crisis rears its head — and it surely will — we will continue to serve unnoticed and lacking the support from the Jewish community, which we so desperately need, to provide for the spiritual life of our Jewish sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, soldiers and airmen.
It does not have to be this way. We can do things as a religious community to keep the concern alive. The first step is to recognize that we do have Jews who serve on active duty in the military. We can do this by offering a prayer at the end of each synagogue service remembering those who are separated from family and friends as they protect our liberty to enjoy this synagogue service. One Conservative congregation I know concludes each service by singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” a synagogue tradition started during World War II. The congregation pledged to keep singing until every single service member returned home. Since that has yet to happen, they continue to sing — as a constant reminder that Jews do serve in our military and die for this country.
A second step in helping our troops is to be certain the agency our community established to work on behalf of Jewish service members is funded appropriately to carry out that mission. The JWB Jewish Chaplains Council is the sole Jewish agency recognized by the Defense Department to provide for the religious needs of Jews in the military. JWB, as part of the larger Jewish Community Centers Association, receives a minimal budget and has minimal staff. We must insist that JWB get sufficient, earmarked funding to enable it to provide essential training for certified lay leaders and Jewish chaplains as well as publication and free distribution of high-quality Jewish spirituality booklets, informational tracts and other handouts. They must be able to travel to visit Jewish programs around the world on some regular basis.
We need the ability to distribute numerous religious texts at no charge. Today, on virtually any military installation, one can get copies of the New Testament, sometimes with Psalms or Proverbs included, for the asking. These materials are made available to military chaplains at no cost by organizations such as the Gideons and the various Bible societies. Because they are given to the chaplains for free distribution, they are available for the service members’ asking. A copy of the Hebrew Bible, Tanakh, on the other hand, entails expense since these must be purchased either through military channels or by direct purchase. With very limited budgets, few — if any — command chaplains are willing to give away $15-per-copy bibles. Therefore, those of us interested in keeping young Jewish men and women Jewish must ensure that they have materials with mainstream Jewish perspectives readily available.
Third, we should encourage our young rabbinate to look favorably upon one tour of military service. This will only happen when synagogues look favorably upon military service and value it equally with serving a traditional, civilian congregation. As long as congregations refuse to view military service — already regarded by all rabbinical groups as comparable to civilian service — as equivalent to congregational service, rabbis will have difficulty when they revert to the civilian world.
We must develop a means to augment the salary of first-tour rabbis who serve in the military. The disparity between civilian and military compensation for newly ordained rabbis is vast. While we can not eliminate the gap entirely, a $10,000-$15,000 salary augmentation would help reduce the Jewish chaplain shortfall.
Fourth, we have a moral obligation to take every opportunity to honor and welcome military families into our midst. Young service members who seek affiliation with local synagogues and communal agencies must be given every possible consideration. Many synagogues and agencies forgive dues payment for active-duty service members. This enables service families to affiliate without having to ask for dues considerations. While synagogues generally respond favorably to requests, this gesture — obviating the need for military families to ask — recognizes, in part, their sacrifice for us all.
Fifth, our Jewish communities must maintain links with service members. It costs very little to offer military members complimentary subscriptions to Jewish hometown newspapers. This alone could have a real impact on Jewish continuity. The very thought that the community cared enough to send their paper makes one feel a part of the group and eager to join — or rejoin — upon return to civilian life. This is a major community-building tool and might well be pursued by local Jewish federations which either publish the local Jewish paper themselves or have the ability to encourage the private publishers to provide them for military families.
We must never forget the importance of Jewish military service. That alone helps demonstrate that Jews are active and involved community members. Never again should anyone in our community say, “Jews, they don’t serve in the armed forces!”
Is implementing these ideas possible? Without a doubt, the American Jewish community can find the resources to provide and fund all of these ideas. Conservatively, the cost would be less than 20 cents per year for every Jew in the United States. Is that affordable? It is all a matter of what our community’s priorities are. There is every reason for us to elevate these needs in our communal mindset and provide funding as soon as possible.
We must always remember that the freedoms our military protects are those freedoms we enjoy on a daily basis. Without a strong military to defend them, we could easily lose our constitutional protections. If we want to enjoy the fruits of liberty, we must be prepared to defend them. To that end, we, as an organized community, must do all we can to support those who put their very lives on the line on our behalf as they support and defend our Constitution.
Now that war in Iraq is over, now that our troops are coming home, we — the beneficiaries of their sacrifice — must not abandon them. Each of us must do all we can to keep these modern heroes on our communal and personal horizons. We dare not let them down.
Rabbi Maurice Kaprow, a commander in the United States Navy Chaplain Corps, is currently stationed in Italy as deputy fleet chaplain for the navy’s Sixth Fleet. These views are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of the Defense Department, U.S. Navy or any U.S. military command.