Last week was my first adventure on the road as an Education Fellow. I went to Montgomery and Auburn, Alabama, and then continued on to Columbus, Georgia. My road trip buddy for this adventure was Lex Rofes, a second year Education Fellow. We met a lot of new people and had some great experiences. But the best part of our four-day excursion happened at the end—and involved the military.
Early Sunday morning, Lex and I joined some dedicated volunteers from Temple Israel in their weekly pilgrimage to provide the soldiers at Fort Benning with a morning service followed by a food-filled oneg. “Oneg” literally means delight, and usually involves tasty treats and socializing. These soldiers have come to enjoy this delight—and so there were around 600 soldiers who came to enjoy the services and oneg on the Sunday Lex and I were there.
We were invited to participate in services, lay-led by Neil Block, a congregant of Temple Israel who is extremely passionate about this operation. Neil was in the U.S. Navy, and he has made it his responsibility to ensure that the soldiers of Fort Benning have access to Judaism. To him, it does not matter that the majority of the soldiers in attendance are not Jewish. The Jewish soldiers appreciate this weekly gift, but so too do the other men and women in uniform.
Lex observed that this might well be the largest Sunday morning Jewish service in the country. The soldiers come for some quiet time to reflect and of course, for the oneg. Local businesses donate cookies, cakes, bagels, and cream cheese for the weekly oneg. Even with over 600 soldiers in attendance, there was enough for everyone to have a sweet and a bagel. The soldiers were all extremely polite and efficient. In no time at all, everyone was fed and we were out of food!
(I also learned that soldiers in basic training are on a high-protein-low carb diet, so this oneg was a special treat.)
The congregants we volunteered with echoed the sentiment that it did not matter if the soldiers in attendance were Jewish or not; what matters is a positive Jewish presence, and just giving back to the soldiers who serve our country. The 600 soldiers who showed up included people from all faiths. Some ask Neil and the volunteers about Judaism after the service, but most want to hear news from the outside world; they appreciate the sense of connection and community.
Many of the families at Temple Israel have ties to the military, and they are thereby dedicated to serving those who serve our country. It was an amazing experience for me and I cannot wait to go again the next time I am in Columbus. It’s a uniquely Southern and Jewish tribute to our troops, quietly carried out each week with food and fellowship, and I was proud to be a part of it.
In addition to being the Director of Rabbinic Services at the ISJL, I’m a proud member of the Jewish Welfare Board’s (JWB) Rabbinic Council, an organization established in 1917 to support the spiritual needs of Jews in the United States armed services.
I recently received word that three pallets of Jewish prayer books were damaged in military efforts, and are now unusable. The military was in desperate need to find Jewish burial plots in the South that could provide a proper resting place for these words of God and the long-held traditions of our people. This would be a great and rare opportunity for a congregation to be of unique service to our nation, a way – if you will – to say ‘thank you’ for our freedom to worship as we choose.
Regrettably, earlier efforts to secure those plots in large metropolis were a bust. Those in charge of coordinating this holy endeavor never received a response from the large congregations to whom they had reached out and called.
Thus, they called me: “Please, can you be of any help? We don’t understand how these large communities could be so silent in the face of this request.”
Yes, we could help.
Land space, particularly in large communities and congregations where there is the realistic hope of continued growth, is more limited. Reasonably, one can assume that much of that limited space is already claimed. But in many of our smaller southern congregations, where the populations are more likely to be on the decline, there is some land to spare.
Therefore, I made a suggestion: “Allow me to reach out to our smaller southern congregations. I believe they’ll respond more promptly. Not simply because they may have space available, but because they know well the meaning of ‘sacrifice.’ It’s what allows these small congregations to defy the odds and continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish identities and values in their area so richly.”
And respond they did.
Within a day, there were offerings from smaller congregations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. These were thanksgiving offers to this nation. These offers were also a tribute to all of the American Jews who have valiantly served this nation in uniform since its earliest days. And of course, the response showed respect for the prayer books themselves; as one congregation shared: “It’s only proper that these words should rest here with us, as – for us – they lead the way here!”
The damaged prayer books now have a resting place in the South, and the words within continue to enrich our lives. God bless our communities, God bless our soldiers, and God bless America.
When we brought our baby son home from the hospital nearly 27 years ago, we imagined many things for his future.
The Army wasn’t one of them.
The Jewish Chaplains Council estimates that there are currently around 10,000 active duty men and women known to be Jewish. My son, Sergeant Harrel Carlton Kimball, is one of those active duty Jewish soldiers.
I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise – from a very young age, he insisted on running outside every time he heard a “hoptercopter” in the sky! We got really lucky after basic training; he was assigned to his individual training at a base that had a retired Rabbi serving as a Chaplain. It gave him an opportunity to connect to something familiar and normal during this big transition in his life. Then he was assigned to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, for his home base. He attended synagogue for a couple of Shabbat services and the high holy days in Nashville, Tennessee, about 45 minutes away, and the congregation was very happy to accommodate him!
And then came his first deployment in 2010 to Afghanistan. How does a Jewish mother bless her child before an event like this? The only thing I could think to do was the priestly blessing over him. Much to my surprise, he did not stop me, or even seem embarrassed when others passed us by at the airport. It was a moment I will never forget.
While in Afghanistan, he celebrated the High Holy Days privately, without any service attendance; Chanukah, too, came and went during this deployment, but it was a sheer delight! His buddies rallied around him as he opened his gifts, played dreidel and lit his tiny Menorah.
Since that first deployment to Afghanistan, he spent a year-long deployment in Honduras, and is now considering one more tour in Afghanistan if he reenlists for another year (he is nearing the completion of his six year enlistment). The most common question I get from others is how I cope with the worry. My faith helps. I do not believe my son or I are any more important to God than anyone else, but my faith gives me strength to deal with life.
My hometown rabbi, Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai in New Orleans, gave a sermon once that really stuck with me. It was titled “The Jungle is Neutral.” “The jungle” could be the universe, a war zone, mother nature, a bad cell inside a body, a stray bullet, a car accident; his sermon’s thesis was that these things do not happen to bad people as a punishment, they just happen. This is my faith, this is my Judaism, and this is my strength.
Of course, I pray for my son’s safety and the safety of all of our troops. I pray because my connection in prayer with God gives me strength, and because my son knows that I pray, and that gives him guidance and strength.
As an “army mom,” three things have helped immensely:
- Avoiding constant worry.There is no advantage to constant worry. It only hurts the worrier and doesn’t help the child (in this case, a full-grown soldier) you’re worrying about.
- Remembering that anything can happen anywhere. Who is to say that on any given day someone is safer here or there? I wonder how many moms used to worry about their child’s job in a New York high rise. We just don’t know what the future holds.
My son, Sergeant Kimball, plans to finish his military career in early 2014 or early 2015, and then finish college and pursue a civilian career. I tease him that he must then give me GIRLY GIRL grandchildren that I can take to ballet and to get mani/pedis and buy lots of sweet pink things for, after all this army-boy stuff! I tease him that this is my reward for keeping a stiff upper lip, but the truth is, he has been my sweet reward all along. I couldn’t be prouder of him.
Do you know any Jewish soldiers? How do their families navigate deployments and military life?