Support for Jewish Military Chaplains and Jewish Military Personnel and Their Families


Approximately 1,500,000 men and women are serving in the United States military today. Military chaplains provide much-needed pastoral care to these service members, particularly to those who have experienced or face the traumas of combat. Unfortunately, Jewish military personnel do not always have ready access to Jewish pastoral services; there are currently only 29 active-duty Jewish chaplains in the armed services. Shabbat and holiday observances on military bases are often conducted by lay leaders rather than by trained chaplains.

This chaplain shortage affects many aspects of life for Jewish military personnel and their families. Jewish servicemen and women, who make up only a small percentage of the American military force, can be acutely aware of their minority status. As a rabbi and active duty chaplain stationed at the National Naval Medical Center near Washington, DC, explained," Military, unlike civilian society, is a pretty religious place. Most of my chaplain colleagues are quite respectful-and try to pray in a pluralistic way, but the language of the ship is in a Christian tone, and so the Jews can feel a little isolated in trying to maintain a faith that is a minority faith."[1]

In 1950 the Union adopted a resolution at its 41st General Assembly noting that the Reform Movement was to provide one-third of the military chaplaincy corps and outlining a process to allow the necessary leaves of absence and provide these chaplains with job security upon their return from duty. Since that time, the shortage of trained Jewish military chaplains is becoming more acute with the elimination of the draft and as current chaplains age and fewer rabbis choose to join the military after ordination. This poses a significant challenge for Jewish military personnel, particularly those stationed overseas. However, military regulations allow exceptions for volunteers, rather than chaplains, to offer pastoral services when necessary. Clergy who want to serve military personnel but who are ineligible for military service can apply for waivers in order to provide pastoral care. This makes it possible for both civilian clergy and lay leaders to provide necessary support to Jewish military personnel where trained Jewish military chaplains are unavailable.[2]

Some Reform congregations have done a remarkable job of trying to fill this void by providing support to Jewish military personnel and their families. Congregations are supplying clergy for pastoral care and religious services on military bases in their region, and they are extending invitations to military personnel and their families to become part of congregational life. Congregations are creating support networks for parents whose children are in the military and for patients in military hospitals. Others are offering support to those serving overseas through care packages and correspondence.

Yet more can be done to serve this vulnerable and often isolated Jewish population. Too often Jewish military personnel and their families are invisible to our congregations. Hillel said, "Do not separate yourself from the community (Pirkei Avot 2:4). As Reform Jews we must connect with the Jewish servicemen and women and their families for we are their community, just as they are ours. "All Jews are responsible for one another" (Babylonian Talmud, Sh'vuot 39a).

THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

l. Encourage HUC-JIR to provide information to rabbinical and cantorial students about military chaplaincy;

2. Encourage the Department of Defense and the Chaplain Corps to consider waiving age requirements whenever appropriate for religious leaders of all faiths who seek to serve as chaplains at home or abroad;

3. Encourage rabbis and cantors to seek waivers if necessary in order to serve Jewish military personnel and provide volunteer services to military personnel in their communities;

4. Encourage congregations to work with base chaplains to arrange for civilian clergy and lay volunteers to conduct Shabbat and holiday services, teach Torah and provide spiritual counseling on bases and ships and in hospitals;

5. Encourage congregations to reach out to Jewish service members and their families in their local communities, to make them full participants in the life of the congregation;

6. Encourage military hospital chaplains to invite Jewish clergy to serve Jewish men and women admitted to their hospitals and their families.

[1] "Military Services Hit Hard by Chaplain Shortage," Nathanial Popper, The Forward, June 24, 2005.

[2] For example, army regulations state, "Distinctive faith group leaders may provide ministry on an exception to policy basis when military chaplains are not available to meet the faith group coverage requirements of soldiers and their families."