For a few minutes in 1984, Nosson Sachs felt sure that General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. would end his military career before it began.
The freshly minted rabbi had just begun working as a chaplain at Fort Stewart, Ga., the largest military installation in the eastern United States, when Schwarzkopf asked him to write some remarks to honor another chaplain.
“I threw in a yasher koach with a nice ‘ch’ sound. I figured he’d look at it and cross it out; that he’d use my remarks just as a basis for his,” remembers Sachs.
No such luck.
“He began reading my remarks, and I’m thinking ‘it begins and it ends right here.’ But he got to the end, and pronounced it perfectly. He was of German decent — had no problem with the ‘ch,’” said Sachs.
Sitting in a room filled with CPR-test dummies in UPMC Shadyside, Sachs couldn’t sound more alive; he’s an expert storyteller, and with every story comes a revelation about the power of God and the strength of love — a good fit, it seems, to work with soldiers frightened by the tremors of war.
But, at least for now, it’s time for Sachs to return. The 27-year veteran Army Reserve chaplain re-entered civilian life on Jan. 12 after five years of active duty that led him to both Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as to a position as a director of Strong Bonds, a military counseling program. Now back as a hospital chaplain, Sachs leaves behind the spirituality-nurturing soldier recovery program he helped build.
Strong Bonds “was birthed over time,” said Lt. Col. Carleton Birch of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains. From 1998 on, it was a unit-level program aimed at better preparing returning soldiers to re-enter their relationships at home.
“There was a tremendous spike in divorce rate, a rise in domestic and child abuse [among military families],” said Sachs. “That got everyone’s attention. So the Army turned to its chaplaincy and said, ‘we need you to address this for us right away. Yesterday. Last week.’”
The program became formatted as weekend retreats for couples to reconnect, with “skills-based, conceptually-based” exercises, said Sachs, including lectures, videos, Powerpoint presentations and simple, human interaction — “couples working together with other couples.”
Growing up somewhere between Conservative and Reform Judaism in Connecticut, a “longhaired, end-of-Vietnam era” kid during “the last vestiges of the hippie movement,” Sachs turned to religion in his early 20s because “I wanted to come closer to God, and to do that I had to know his Torah,” he said. “Becoming a rabbi was not the goal, but the means to an end.”
Toward the end of his studies at Yeshiva University, a Jewish Army chaplain’s presentation convinced Sachs that he’d found his place.
“It sounded like a lot of fun — like the Boy Scouts without supervision: camping, hiking, explosions,” he said, laughing. “I love all those things. It was perfect.”
Sachs was commissioned at a base in Germany, where he lived with his wife Sara and children from 1986 to 1990.
Moving to ground zero for the Holocaust gave the Sachs family pause.
“I thought, ‘Do we really want to go to this graveyard of our people?’” said Sachs. “We decided we’d go on the condition that I’d wear my yarmulke everywhere. We were not going to hide.”
Sachs and his family — he now has three adult children, Tzipora, 27; Hanon, 25; and Rachel, 22 — returned to the states so his kids could be raised in a religious Jewish environment.
In 2005, Sachs was mobilized to the 99th Regional Support Command, with its headquarters in Moon Township, to lead the base’s Strong Bonds program. His five-year stint was split by deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq for the High Holidays in 2006 and 2007, respectively, where he led services in unorthodox places.
“We held services in a compound where the Republican Guard palace was. We were in the main board room, which I’m sure Saddam Hussein had used,” said Sachs. “We were sitting there, me and my Jews, with gefilte fish and matza, singing Hebrew songs, telling Chasidic stories, and the ghost of Saddam Hussein was lurking about ripping his hair out.”
But it’s the notion of helping and healing soldiers’ most personal relationships — their marriages — that most enticed Sachs.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Sachs of the retreats. “[The couples] start off sitting next to each other, and by the end, they’re interlocking knees, holding hands. There are tears. I won’t say it’s magic, but it’s definitely powerful.”
Sachs’ rise from unit leader to the director of the Reserve’s entire Northeast sector in the last five years echoed the growth of Strong Bonds, from “10 to 15,000 soldiers and just a few weekend retreats to 100,000 [participants] throughout the Army,” said Matt Griffith, the Reserve’s director of Family Ministry. Sachs began leading only five retreats a year; 2009 saw 35. An NIH study reinforced the growth — couples involved with Strong Bonds were 4 percent less likely to divorce a year after the program.
Though you’re now more likely to see Sachs at your hospital bedside than in Army fatigues, he’ll continue to lead occasional Strong Bonds retreats — helping soldiers has become inseparable from who he is.
“War doesn’t deal nicely with people sometimes. It hurts people,” said Sachs. “That’s my job — to ensure that the Army doesn’t chew up and spit people out.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)