Visiting Vicksburg: Reflections from a Rabbi/Army Chaplain

Newly ordained. Longtime military. Feeling these responsibilities deeply.

“Yea, I have a goodly heritage…” (Psalm 16:6)

This year, Memorial Day weekend fell right after I moved to Mississippi – and one week before I returned briefly to Cincinnati to receive smicha (rabbinical ordination). To observe the holiday, I went to the Vicksburg National Military Park.

I’m not only a rabbi, but also an army chaplain with a long history with the military. When you’ve met gold star families, deployed overseas multiple times, spent time with soldiers who have returned home but really haven’t fully left their deployment behind… on a day like Memorial Day, being surrounded by people blaring pop music, eating burgers, guzzling beers, and hitting the beach just doesn’t feel quite right. That’s why I found myself at the historic battlefield and cemetery in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

As I walked through the park’s regimental monuments from Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama— there was one regiment that stood out to me: The 7th Rhode Island Infantry.

Rhode Island is my home state, the place that I will always call home no matter where I am and no matter where I go. The 7th Rhode Island Infantry unit, after being decimated in the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg, was sent west to aid Grant’s Army in besieging this focal point of Confederate resistance. Fighting not only rebel guns but also typhoid, dysentery, yellow fever, and the unforgiving heat of a Mississippi summer, the 7th would hand many of her beloved sons over to Death in order to secure their meaningful victory.

If that were not enough, the men who were lucky enough to survive this harrowing ordeal would be shipped back to Virginia to fight at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Appomattox before the end of the war. 199 Rhodies of the 7th never came home, never got to embrace their families again, and never got to see old age.

Standing in Mississippi on Memorial Day, I wept openly in gratitude that these heroes are my ancestors, and in humility, that I, as a Rhode Island Army National Guardsman, am their descendant. “Who am I and what have I done to merit standing before these titans?” I asked myself.

As I continued on with the tour, I came across the Congregation Anshe Chesed cemetery which is located literally on the battlefield itself. Maybe it’s just me, as a New England kid, but a Jewish cemetery isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when I think “Civil War battlefield.” But there it was a Jewish cemetery. I was shocked at just how large it was, realizing that the community that stands at fewer than two dozen members today was at one time, rather sizable.

I went home that night and read up on Anshe Chesed. I was blown away by what I learned. During the 1930s and ‘40s, the historic congregation actually fostered an 11-year-old Albert Friedlander after he escaped from Germany and was separated from his family in 1939. For those who don’t know, Rabbi Albert Friedlander went on to become one of the most renowned, respected and accomplished rabbis of the 20th century!

My friends and family will tell you that I’m not an emotional person, but for the second time that day I wept, asking myself: “What more can I give this community after they have already fully lived the words of Talmud, whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world?”

People have said to me since my ordination “You must be so happy to finally be a rabbi and army chaplain.” I have felt many feelings, but I would not describe my predominant emotion as happiness; rather, I feel the incredible weight of responsibility that comes with this office. The shock that comes with ordination. The eyes of the past, present, and future on me.

Yea, I have a goodly heritage… I only hope I am worthy of those who came before me.