A Pittsburgh rabbi, in accepting an achievement award Monday for military chaplains, emphasized the need to attract more rabbis to the service.
The Rabbinical Council of America, an organization representing Orthodox rabbis, awarded Rabbi Nosson Sachs its 2011 Chaplain Joseph I. Hoeing Memorial Award during a ceremony Monday, May 16, in Englewood, N.J.
The award, according to the RCA, recognizes an individual chaplain who, “through his unselfish concern for the spiritual needs and welfare of all military personnel, embodies the dignity of Judaism and brings honor to the Torah and glory to his people.”
Sachs, an Army chaplain for 28 years, holding the rank of colonel, is being honored for his contributions to the Army’s Strong Bonds program, a relationship enrichment program designed to combat domestic violence and divorce in military families. RCA officials say Sachs created “the single largest and most effective” Strong Bonds programs in the Army during his recent five-year recall to active duty.
“It was a major Kiddush hashem for us that one of our rabbis was being recognized for something that important,” said Rabbi Ira Kronenberg, an RCA rabbi, retired chaplain and chairman of the committee on military chaplaincy.
That notwithstanding, Sachs told the Chronicle he is concerned by how few rabbis from all denominations are choosing to enter the military for even a short stint — a point he promised to address in his acceptance speech.
“We still need more Jewish chaplains. In fact, in the brief time I have [in accepting the award] I hope to make the case to the RCA that we need more rabbis of every denomination to serve,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a 20-year commitment. If [rabbis] would come out of the seminaries serving three years to our country we would be fine.”
The reasons for lack of interest among young rabbis vary, according to Sachs.
“For some denominations, the pay is not competitive; for some denominations, they don’t want to be away from social structures they’re used to. And for everyone, the idea of being deployed can be frightening,” he said. “I understand that, but I think service to our nation is so important. If you go out to a place to serve Jews who are in such need, it’s such a wonderful thing to do.”
He noted that in some hot spots, Jewish servicemen (and women) “risk their lives to come to services. That there’s a rabbi who’s willing to be there for them is so powerful for them.”
There are 20 RCA member rabbis currently serving as military chaplains, Kronenberg said. That number may appear small, but he said it represents a larger commitment than the other movements for two reasons: Orthodox rabbis are, for the most part, politically conservative, and the pay rabbis from other movements can command from congregations is usually higher than for Orthodox rabbis.
Sachs, 56, who is currently a hospital chaplain at UPMC-Shadyside, maintains his Army reserve status. In fact, he expects to spend up to 120 days this year as regional support command chaplain for the 99th Regional Support Command, which covers 13 states. His job is to oversee “geographical programming” by chaplains in those states.
Sachs is married to Sara (Goldner) Sachs. They have three children and four grandchildren.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)