How do we serve the spiritual needs of our men and women in uniform? As a Navy veteran and a rabbi, it is a question I struggle with every day. When we think about the role of religion in the military we often think of it in the context of death or illness —especially this time of year as we approach Memorial Day.
Yet the reality of religion in the military is so much more broad and complex. On a daily basis, Jewish service members and their families face loneliness and isolation, seeking a community that will support and advocate for them. Since 1917, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a signature program of JCC Association of North America that I proudly lead, has partnered with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to meet those needs by creating meaningful Jewish life for Jewish military personnel. Through the recruitment and training of rabbis and lay leaders, JWB has created a global network of spiritual leaders to serve the brave men and women who in turn serve our country.
As the Forward reported over the weekend and yesterday, the division chaplain of Ft. Campbell, Kentucky recently replaced its Jewish lay leader, Jeanette Mize. Whenever new leadership comes to a military installation, the military conducts a review of various programs, including the programs serving various faith communities. At Ft. Campbell, this review showed that its program was no longer meeting the needs of the Jewish soldiers of that base. Attendance at Friday night Shabbat services was dwindling to a mere two or three soldiers.
The command chaplain, in looking out for the best interests of an evolving Jewish community, appointed a new lay leader. The decision, while difficult, was made with the best interests of our Jewish soldiers in mind. This new lay leader, who is endorsed by JWB, has energetically jumped into the work of serving the Jewish military community of Ft. Campbell, and this past Friday night, organized a first well-attended service. JWB will continue its support for Ft. Campbell’s new lay leader, as it did for Jeanette Mize, ensuring a vibrant future for this Jewish community.
The recent Forward articles alleged that the transition of the Fort Campbell Jewish lay leader was in some way an act of discrimination, of anti-Semitism. To be sure, over the course of its history, the U.S. military has not been immune to such acts and for more than 100 years, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council has been and remains ever vigilant whenever any such cases occur. This is simply not one of them.
As JWB fulfills our mission, we are always mindful of the changing demographics of the military. Anyone who has teenagers or young adults in the house knows the challenges of bringing our age-old traditions and customs into a 21st century format, making them meaningful and relevant to our Millennial and soon, Gen Z, Jewish service members. JWB works to prepare chaplains and lay leaders to lead services, conduct Passover Seders and lead educational programs for today’s military force, where the average age is 24. Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram are just some of the tools now routinely used to bring young soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coastguardsmen into Shabbat services.
At JWB’s most recent training course, we focused special attention on teaching our lay leaders about setting the stage to begin a service. Programs such as guided meditations and interactive, dynamic approaches to prayer were just some of the tools discussed that our lay leaders can use to continue to keep up with a younger and ever-changing force. Our lay leaders are compassionate people who volunteer to serve the Jewish men and women who serve our country in uniform when there is no chaplain present. Jeanette Mize did so with honor and care for the Ft. Campbell community for over two decades, and JWB is very grateful for her service. Change is never easy. But change is sometimes necessary when we remember who we serve and why we continue to do so.
On this Memorial Day, as I remember those who gave their lives in defense of our great nation, I recommit myself, the JWB and all of our chaplains and lay leaders to meeting the spiritual needs of our Jewish service members and their families.
Rabbi Irving Elson is the director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a signature program of JCC Association of North America.