A Pittsburgh rabbi is leading an effort by the Conservative movement to increase the number of non-Orthodox rabbis in the military.
Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation and a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents the international Conservative rabbinate, is chairing a commission of the movement that encourages Conservative rabbis to join the service.
At its June meeting in New York, that commission approved a two-point proposal to make the chaplaincy more appealing:
• Permit rabbis with three years of active duty to apply for civilian rabbinic positions that require five years of experience; and
• Allow congregations to hire assistant rabbis on a deferred basis, enabling chaplains to have jobs waiting once they’re discharged.
“We will share that [plan] with the CCAR and hopefully they will approve it as well,” Berkun said, referring to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents the Reform rabbinate and has its own chaplaincy commission.
According to the Jewish Chaplains Council of the Jewish Welfare Board, 29, active duty Jewish chaplains currently serve between 8,000 and 10,000 Jewish men and women in uniform — many serving in Iraq and Afghanistan — plus their families.
Most of these people are not Orthodox Jews, but 21 of the Jewish Chaplains, or 70 percent, are Orthodox rabbis; the remaining eight are Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist.
Berkun stressed he was not criticizing the work of Orthodox chaplains, but he said Jewish servicemen who do not worship in the Orthodox fashion “deserve chaplains who speak their language.”
He said he was merely seeking “balance” in the chaplaincy.
The reasons why Reform and Conservative rabbis don’t enter the service could date back to another war — Vietnam.
“Much of the leadership of the movements came of age in the ’60s and ’70s and were very negative toward the military,” said Rear Admiral Harold L. Robinson, director of the JWB Chaplains Council, and also a Reform rabbi. “They never came to understand that service in the military is service. … There’s almost no understanding that this is a way of meaningfully serving our people, our country and our world.”
Other reasons are high-paying civilian rabbinic positions were more abundant (until the recession), and a backlash among rabbinic students to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy, under which gay and lesbian servicemen that reveal their sexual preference are discharged.
In fact, Robinson said that when he speaks at seminaries, students often ask him how he expects them to serve while the military maintains “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”
Robinson’s response: Because gay servicemen need spiritual guidance, too.
“I want there to be Reform and Conservative rabbis who are not homophobic, so people in the military who are gay or lesbian or are struggling with that issue” have someone to go to, he said.
When rabbis reject military service because of the policy, he added, “You abandon the people you claim to be supporting because you’re not there when they need you.”
While liberal rabbis stayed away from the chaplaincy, the Orthodox embraced it. That’s had one particular result, Robinson said, greater acceptance of Jewish practices.
“The Orthodox, and especially Chabad, have understood if you play out your Judaism in a public sphere like the military you establish a kind of legitimacy for Jewish practice,” he said, “so Chabad is out there putting up Chanuka menoras in malls, but they’re also sending rabbis to military bases. That has shifted American views, not just of Chabad but of Judaism; it has made it more the town common if you will.”
The chaplaincy wasn’t always so weighted toward the Orthodox, according to Rabbi Ira Kronenberg, a retired Army chaplain who chairs the chaplaincy commission for the Rabbinic Council of America (Orthodox). In fact, the military used to balance the number of chaplains among the three largest streams.
“We were pretty much one-third, one-third, one-third,” Kronenberg said. After Vietnam, though, it became impossible to maintain that balance.
“Orthodox Jews in the United States tend to be more politically conservative with a small c,” he said. Therefore, “you generally get much greater support for the armed services.”
That said, he supports Berkun’s effort to boost liberal rabbinic recruitment.
“I think it’s an excellent step on their part,” Kronenberg said. “I think it will work, and I think it’s needed. Variety never hurts; it keeps everyone on their toes.”
To demonstrate the need for more liberal rabbis in the service, a delegation of four rabbis — Berkun, Robinson, CCAR President Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus and Rabbi Ruth Alpers, director of human relations at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion — recently visited the Navy aircraft carrier U.S.S. Harry S. Truman during a naval exercise off the Florida coast. To reach their destination, the rabbis flew 100 miles on a fighter jet and landed on the flight deck.
“We went from 150 [miles per hour] to zero in three seconds,” Berkun said. “I have no idea what the G-force of that is, but it was pretty intense.”
While aboard, the rabbis saw what may be the only nuclear powered eternal light over the ark housing the ship’s Torah, and they met with a Jewish officer who conducts lay-led services.
“The idea of going out there was to raise the consciousness of the movements to the chaplaincy, and how important it is,” Berkun said.
For him, this a personal issue. Berkun served as a Navy chaplain in San Francisco from 1966 to 1968 — during the Vietnam War. Though he never went overseas, he made sure Jewish troops departing on ships had the food and religious supplies they needed and the freedom to worship at appropriate times on board.
He also visited returning amputees at the Oakland Naval Hospital and prayed over the dead at the San Francisco National Cemetery.
“It was really amazing duty,” Berkun said. “I touched people’s lives — both Jewish and not Jewish — really in a way that I haven’t since.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)