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Here’s What It’s Like To Celebrate The Jewish Sabbath On An Air Force Base

No matter where a Jew is, Shabbat starts at sundown.

Except when it doesn’t, as at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

There, due to Air Force orders, services for the Jewish Sabbath start hours before the light begins to fade. The rabbi, Captain Shaul Rappeport, lives placidly with this quirk of custom. It’s not the only one.

For example, Rappeport is referred to not as a rabbi, but as a chaplain. He leads Jewish prayer not in a synagogue, but in a church – where there is both a light bulb-powered “eternal flame” and a large crucifix. While standing behind a lectern on a raised platform, he wears a tallit, or prayer shawl, over camouflage fatigues that match his camouflage kippah. One Friday afternoon this past winter, a flock consisting of a visiting journalist, three local civilians and six new recruits, also in fatigues, sat before him in a space big enough for hundreds of faithful. The male recruits were wearing camouflage kippot, as well.

Rappeport’s church is a true outpost of Jewish life. But Jewish life on a military base isn’t just about Jews. Indeed, Rappeport spends most of his time serving as a spiritual advisor to everybody but Jews. Only two of the six recruits attending services that afternoon were Jewish.

Fortunately, that Shabbat, the Jews of Lackland and everywhere else were reading a part of the Torah directly relevant to soldiers and airmen. In it, Rappeport explained, Moses explains to his father-in-law Jethro — who is not an Israelite — why the people throng to him morning until evening. The reason: He, Moses, is the only one who can adjudicate their disputes according to God’s laws and teachings.

“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro exclaims. “You will surely wear yourself out … the task is too heavy for you.” Instead, Moses should seek out God-fearing, trustworthy lieutenants to hear minor complaints. This chain of command will pass the major issues along to Moses. It’s excellent advice; Moses promptly follows it.

“Clear communication; appreciate criticism; and for every problem you see, find a solution…if we can do all of that, with God’s help we’ll be as successful as Jethro and Moses in pursuing things in the military and beyond,” Rappeport said.

A Base Of 19 Faiths

Lackland covers around 10 square miles. Over 45,000 people live or work there, including every new Air Force recruit, who reports there for eight weeks of basic training. Nearly 10,000 people live on the base itself, according to the 2010 census. The gates are guarded by men in sunglasses with large guns. All around are drab buildings and green fields dedicated to drills, classes, parades and administration. There’s also a dentist’s office, a television studio, two museums, a bowling alley, and fast food outlets.

Rappeport was presiding in Airmen Memorial Chapel, one of five religious facilities on the base. It’s surrounded by lawn and sits a few hundred yards away from any other building. Wiccans and Orthodox Christians pray there, too. There are 19 faiths represented on base. People of any faith or none — they’re all welcome for Rappeport’s Friday services and Sunday afternoon Jewish studies classes.

When the Forward visited, the weather was beautiful: about 70 degrees and sunny. Both the warmth and the light had something to do with winter in Texas, but also with the fact that Friday night services at Lackland start during the afternoon, at 1600 hours (4:00 p.m.).

Services start so early because a previous rabbi who lived off-base wanted to conclude with enough time to get home before the Sabbath started, said Eric Holwitt, a retired major who still works on the base in a drug research lab. He and his wife, Dara Holwitt, set up the chapel every week for services and provide the challah and home-baked desserts.

They haven’t gotten approval to hold services later in the day, even though Rappeport lives on base with his wife and three children, who are homeschooled. His full-time presence “makes a huge difference,” Eric Holwitt said. “Rabbi Rappeport is marvelous.”

The rabbi returns the compliment.

Everyone at Lackland is friendly and welcoming, including his neighbors, Rappeport said. Sometimes, though, being a minority leads to unusual interactions. At the BX – the base’s version of a mall – Rappeport was once stopped by a man at the register: “He asked, ‘Excuse me, are you Jewish? One quick question: Can you tell me about what Jews think about Jesus Christ?’ I told him, ‘It’s a little bit of a bigger conversation.’”

Airmen Memorial Chapel has a high, sloped ceiling and rows of straight-backed pews, which can seat a few hundred. There is an ark — a hole in the wall covered by a curtain. Above it, there’s a relief of the Ten Commandments, to the right of which hangs a crucifix, covered with red felt curtains when Jews are using the space.

The enlistees — rabbi and recruits — were in uniform; those who had been there for long enough had earned the right to have their last names on their chests. All the men wore camouflage kippot and had their hair in buzz cuts. The female recruits wore their hair in tight buns.

“Jews stick together – you need help, they help you. They need help, you’re there for them,” said a 17-year-old girl with an Israeli mother. (17 is the minimum age for enlistment.) She said she knew only a few words of Hebrew, none of them very nice. She felt connected to Judaism, she said, even though she didn’t know the prayers. (The Forward was allowed to interview the recruits on the condition that they remain anonymous.)

Reading The ‘Shema,’ Eyes Open

The service is led using the siddur, or prayer book, of the JCC Association of North America’s JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, which has certified rabbis as military chaplains since 1917. The JWB’s siddur is the only one endorsed by all three major Jewish denominations.

“There are lots of translations, transliterations, and English prayers,” Holwitt kvelled about the JWB siddur. “And it fits in your pocket.”

Rappeport led an abridged service with a lot of English. He explained to the congregation that during the “Shema” prayer it is customary to close one’s eyes, but it’s acceptable to keep them open to read the words if you don’t know them.

The recruits mumbled their way through the service, drowned out by the civilians, especially a Jewish base employee who was reveling loudly in the responsive readings. None of the recruits knew when to stand or bow.

One of the recruits had been baptized, but had a Jewish mother, and said it was his first time in a Jewish service. Another, an aspiring encryption expert, said he was there because his sister had converted to Judaism, which made him want to learn more about it.

“The Jewish community is God’s people – God has stood by them,” said one recruit, a born-again Christian.

The Department of Defense doesn’t disclose service figures by faith, and the JWB doesn’t have an exact number of Jews serving in the American military – especially since, according to them, many Jews choose not to declare their religion on their intake forms. But the JWB claims that American Jews serve at a rate equal to the general population. The organization Jewish War Veterans of the USA estimates that of the 1.3 million active-duty U.S. military personnel stationed around the world, around 10,000-15,000 are Jewish. The JWB’s estimate would imply a population of around 25,000-30,000. Either way, that number includes the highest-ranking Jew ever to serve in the military: General David Goldfein, the current Chief of Staff of the Air Force.

Air Force chaplain Rabbi Saul Rappeport with his family at the 2017 Joint Base San Antonio air show.

Rabbi Saul Rappeport with his family at the 2017 Joint Base San Antonio air show. Clockwise from top left: Rappeport, his wife Michal, their son Ezzy and daughters Shaina and Sara. Rabbi Saul Rappeport is a military chaplain supported by JCC Association of North America’s JWB Jewish Chaplains Council. Image by Courtesy of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council

The Air Force has six active-duty rabbis out of 2,200 total chaplains, and one of them is always at Lackland. Rappeport is usually pretty starved for Jewish company, especially on Shabbat.

“It’s a sacrifice, but I’ve gained so much more than anything I’ve sacrificed,” he said. Before joining up, Rappeport served at an Orthodox congregation in Lido Beach, on a small island off the south shore of Long Island.

As the number of active-duty military personnel has declined since the end of the draft in 1973, so too has the Jewish population. “Jews don’t show up the way they used to,” griped Holwitt, who has been in San Antonio since 1989.

There are lots of reasons for the low attendance. Every enlisted Air Force recruit is sent to Lackland for boot camp, so hundreds of new recruits are moved to and from the base every week, causing service attendance to vary wildly. The 4:00 p.m. service time is inconvenient for many still working on the base. And tightened security after 9/11 makes it “harder for schnorrers to show up,” Holwitt said, using the Yiddish term for beggars who bounce from service to service in search of free food.

A Break From Basic Training

On the other hand, being at a basic training location pumps up the numbers because during boot camp, everyone has to have a “wingman,” and the pair has to do everything together, even go to the bathroom – or religious services.

That means three of the six recruits in attendance that Shabbat were only there to accompany their wingman, though after services, the tag-alongs said they’d appreciated the experience. Two of the three, a woman from Seattle and a man from rural Georgia, said they had never met a Jew before enlisting. “I didn’t think there would be a Jewish service – but I’m relieved that there’s something for them,” the woman said.

Often it’s the non-Jews who seek out the Jewish programming, Rappeport said. During the eight-week boot camp course, he said, “there are drill sergeants yelling at them all the time – that’s their day-to-day, they get no respite. The only opportunity for not getting yelled at constantly is religious accommodation, two hours a week.” During basic training, airmen can request two hours a week off from their grueling schedule for “religious accommodation” programming – usually an hour-long service and an hour-long class.

Some non-Jews who attend Jewish services and classes are curious about other religions, especially Christians seeking to learn more about the teachings Jesus followed. But many others, he said, are looking for a less judgmental religious framework: “They appreciate that Judaism is not a missionizing religion – no one says, ‘And this is why you should do this.’” Plus, there’s homemade food on Shabbat, thanks to Dara Holwitt.

The Chain Of Command

It’s a major change from Rappeport’s previous job, where he only interacted with Orthodox Jews, he said. Rappeport was born in Australia, moved to Israel as a child, was ordained at seminaries in Jerusalem and South Africa, and had worked synagogues in Pennsylvania and New York for eight years before he enlisted. His wife is American, and he is an American citizen.

In addition to leading services and teaching classes, Rappeport is also assigned to three different units permanently stationed at Lackland, for which he provides spiritual counsel and guidance. The vast majority of people he works with are not Jewish.

He is also periodically called upon to explain Judaism to officers and other chaplains – why Yom Kippur is important enough to justify missing a course, or why different Jews seeking kosher food options may have two entirely different conceptions of what kashrut actually is.

“I miss part of the praying with a larger congregation,” he continued. “But leading Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services here, even without a minyan, is just as satisfying, and in many ways more satisfying. Nobody came because their parents bought a ticket for them, or because they wanted to be seen at the ‘fashion show.’ They came because they wanted to be there.”

One of his favorite parts of Judaism, he says, is that no matter where you go, from Australia to an American Air Force base, the prayers will be the same, even if the melodies are adapted to fit local tastes.

At Lackland, the “Adon Olam” prayer is sung to the tune of the Air Force’s official song (“Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…”). After services concluded, everybody went into an adjoining room for grape juice, challah and Dara Holwitt’s brownies.

“I’m a Jewish mother, I have to tell you to eat more,” she said. They did not object: “It’s the day before PT – gotta load up on carbs,” one said. PT is short for their physical training test: for men, a minimum of 45 pushups in a minute, 50 sit-ups in a minute, and then a 1.5 mile run under 12 minutes.

By the time the meal wound down, it was already 1708 – eight minutes after the scheduled end of the accommodation. No one wanted to be late for inspections. The three pairs of wingmen marched off to their next activity, dreaming of the day basic training would end, and they could find their own place in the chain of command.

Contact Aiden Pink at [email protected]


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