Captain Sarah Schechter, one of only two Reform rabbis on active duty in the U.S. military, reveals what it’s like to serve as a chaplain in the Air Force during this
time of war.
Growing up, did you ever imagine you’d one day become an Air Force chaplain aboard Black Hawk gun ships over the biblical birthplace of Abraham in present-day Iraq?
I never dreamt that I would ever do such a thing. All I knew, from a very young age, is that I wanted to see the world and live an adventure. And I did just that. Between 1986, when I graduated from the “Fame” high school in New York, and 1996, when I entered Hebrew Union College’s rabbinic school, I went to Israel on the Reform Movement’s college and kibbutz program; conducted research in Japan on the history of its Jewish community and on Israeli-Japanese trade relations; helped the chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) in Kobe, Japan, to which I belonged, when an elder of the community died (and I was only 19 years old); worked in Tokyo as a Nippon Telephone and Telecommunications interpreter; freelanced for the Consulate of Israel as an interpreter for visiting Israeli delegations; and enjoyed an apprenticeship as a student of Tea Ceremony under a renowned tea master, through whom I was introduced to Kiko-san, one of the princesses of Japan.
By the spring of 1994, as the last cherry blossoms were falling off of their branches, I realized that I, too, might fall off mine if I didn’t return to my roots in the United States. For the next three years I worked as a researcher for the think-tank/investment bank Nomura Research Institute, which was then located at the World Financial Center, next door to the World Trade Center.
But in 1999 Nomura began downsizing, and I feared my position would be eliminated. Unsure of what to do now, I called my mother.
What did she say?
She told me to meet her at the Vidal Sassoon salon in Greenwich Village. I found her sitting all the way in the back, a big smile on her face, getting her hair colored by an African American man with a green afro. It was in this setting that I asked her, “What am I going to do with my life?” Without skipping a beat, she replied, “Why don’t you become a rabbi?” The colorist looked up and smiled curiously.
All I could do was stammer: “You mean me, become a r-r-r-abbi?”
Then, in quick succession, Mom rattled off all the ways Judaism had been important in my life: my father’s influence (he was a rabbi at Temple Shaari Emeth in Freehold, New Jersey), the many Reform Israel programs I’d gone on and loved, my ties to Judaism throughout my times in Japan, and so forth.
I took both parents’ advice and was accepted into the Hebrew Union College rabbinic program.
How did you decide to become an Air Force chaplain?
I was in my fourth year of rabbinical school on September 11, 2001 when my mother-in-law called: A plane has hit the World Trade Center . My husband Joe Charnes and I were in shock as we heard on the radio about the second plane. I thought about all the people I’d worked with at the World Financial Center and about the huge undertaking our military service members had before them. Within moments I said to Joe: “We have to support our military. I have not yet committed to a congregation. I’ll become a chaplain.” There was no question in my mind that our country was vulnerable, and I wanted to play a role in supporting those who were putting their lives on the line to defend it. Also, the military’s reputation for fitness, motivation, and team building had always appealed to me.
What was Joe’s response?
He said, “Absolutely.” The next day I called an Air Force recruiter and said, “By chance, do you have a need for a rabbi?” I could tell he was both stunned and excited. It is very rare nowadays for a rabbi to apply. He told me he usually processed dentists. I joined as a Chaplain Candidate, a special non-deployable training position, very much like a paid internship, until I was ordained in 2003 and could become a full chaplain.
Why did you choose the Air Force?
My father had been an Air Force lieutenant after being ordained by HUC in 1960, at a time when all rabbis had to serve as military chaplains—a lottery system was used to determine who would actually be called up. Even though he went on to protest the Vietnam War in the ’60s, he spoke lovingly of his Air Force experience.
Now, we share a special rabbinic/Air Force bond. My father is my mentor. I call him often. And whenever I deploy, he travels the country to send me off, and is there when I return.
Does serving your country require significant personal sacrifice?
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “sacrifice,” korbon, is composed of the same root letters (uf, reish, bet) that are in the word kiruv, which means “draw close.” Serving in the military entails both meanings of the word. When I took the Oath of Office in front of witnesses and the American flag, swearing to defend America against all enemies both foreign and domestic “so help me God,” it was a kind of commitment ceremony between me and my country. It was two days before Passover, our festival of freedom, and that significance was not lost on me. Indeed, the military chaplaincy has been a “drawing close” experience, allowing me to develop a great kinship and love for my fellow Americans.
With these rewards comes an element of sacrifice. For example, the other day while speaking on Veterans Day at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida, I announced to the 200 people present that this was the largest gathering of Jews I had been with in years. Walking through the congregation carrying the Torah brought tears to my eyes. I miss having that critical-mass Jewish experience.
Then there’s deployment, which combines both meanings of “sacrifice.” I’ll never forget my first departure day in 2007 to a base in the Persian Gulf. I awoke at dawn, put on my desert camouflage uniform and combat boots, slung the packed duffle bag over my shoulder, kissed my sleeping baby Yael, said goodbye to Joe, went downstairs, and hailed a taxi. Just before entering the cab, I looked up at the fourth-floor window of our apartment. There was Joe, standing by the window, holding our baby, whom I’d been nursing, in his arms. Both of us were straining in the muted light to catch a last glimpse of each other. I told myself: This is an extraordinary moment for us, but it’s also the most ordinary moment because thousands of others have done this in history, and thousands of others are saying goodbye this year as they prepare to go off to war. I am now part of this experience.
I sat down in the taxi and shut the door, hoping the driver would just take off, but he said, “I’ll leave whenever you’re ready.” I was trying to avoid saying the words that would signal leaving my family behind, but eventually I had to force out: “Okay. Let’s go.”
What did you feel as the taxi pulled away?
I felt a heavy sadness about leaving my husband and daughter standing there in the window, but I was not going to fixate on it and let it overwhelm me. I directed my focus to the unknown dangers of going off to war, the knowledge that I would be helping other people’s sons and daughters, and the excitement of being swept up in a life-changing adventure.
Has being in the service hurt your marriage?
No. On the contrary, my service has actually helped us to treasure the time we have together. But as a mother it can be very sad. In 2007, for example, I left behind a baby who was crawling and had no teeth. When I returned, she was walking and had eight teeth. There’s something very important about just being there, and I have missed a lot. For all of us in the military with children, there is no recouping that lost time. Thank God, I have a very capable and reassuring husband as well as Joe’s and my parents, all of whom support our daughter’s emotional well-being. I translate my pain into strength—and this also allows me to better help my fellow service members who are going through similar experiences.
What is your key role as a chaplain?
To ensure that people can practice their constitutional right of freedom of religion, I run a Jewish program that includes religious education, services, and Shabbat and holiday meals; and advise the leadership on ethical and moral issues. I also provide pastoral care to all. In a sense, I am a spiritual social worker. The personal conversations are considered “privileged communication,” meaning that the privilege belongs to the one being counseled; I am not permitted to discuss our conversation with anyone unless he/she tells me I can. Because people know their confidences are secure, many freely go to the chaplain to talk. The only information I’ll share with leadership is the pulse of morale among the ranks. I may also make referrals to organizations that can help with specific problems.
What kinds of issues come up during your privileged communications?
Everything you can imagine, from homesickness and anger management to spiritual guidance and religious identity. I have met with people who were born to mothers on crack and counseled others who graduated from Harvard and MIT. Sometimes the issues are about the individual and sometimes about their families. People do not care what religion I am, only that I care, listen, and ask relevant questions. Most of the time a person will come in very upset and 40 minutes later leave feeling much better, more hopeful and even happy.
Some of the most gut-wrenching counseling I do is when service members receive notice that their girlfriend or wife is leaving them. I am certain that the girlfriend/wife does not know the power of that rejection during basic training and deployment—trying times when the trainee and deployed are relying on that friendship/love to sustain them. They are unable to physically meet their partner and often are unable to reach her by phone. It is terrible, especially when children are involved and the member has virtually no control until he returns home.
Is the stress of family separations in the military a big part of these breakups?
I believe deployment can only hurt relationships when people lack the maturity to put their partnership and children first and treat each other with basic decency. If they have a weak marriage, deployment can weaken it further; if they have a strong marriage, deployment can strengthen it. I pray that our service members will bring the same maturity to their relationships as they do to their work.
Have you ever had to deal with a conscientious objector?
We role-play this in exercises fairly often, but only once in almost six years of active duty have I encountered a conscientious objector. He was a captain in his late 20s, Christian, married with a little baby, whose case was brought to me not to try to change his mind, but to determine the sincerity of his claim. I asked him a number of questions, including, “If, God forbid, someone told you he was going to murder your child, would you use any kind of force to defend your child against this person?” He said, “No.” He cited a number of biblical verses defending his position and I countered with others. I believed he was sincere, and I was not going to stand in the way of him going on with his life.
Have you had to notify the parents of a soldier who was killed in action?
Sadly, yes. One of the first times was informing the mother of a Marine, a police officer in the civilian world, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. Two senior enlisted Marines and I (a Marine chaplain wasn’t nearby) drove to the home, and as we walked up the path, my heart was almost pounding out of my chest at the thought that we were going to be the ones to break this horrible news to her. We knocked. She answered the door, looked at our formal uniforms, and knew at once what we’d come to tell her. “No…no…no,” she cried.
Then one of the Marines quietly, sadly, read the formal announcement: “Ma’am, I sincerely regret to inform you that your son [name] has been killed in the line of duty….”
What is your role during these notifications?
I’m there to support the person making the announcement and the family receiving the news. By military policy, the chaplain is not allowed to give the notification, lest the family view the deliverer of the message as the bad guy and thereby render the chaplain’s role useless. I’m a supporting presence for all, as the family alternates between absorbing the shock of the horrible reality and asking details of their loved one’s death as well as administrative questions. I always follow up with a phone call and maintain contact with the family for a short time. Usually they have their own civilian minister to whom they go for support, but they really appreciate the contact.
Have you played a role after a service member has been killed?
Yes. I would meet mortuary affairs on the flight line, help carry the flag-draped coffin off the plane, take the body to the morgue, and re-ice it with the team. Later we would load the casket onto the truck and drive it to another plane, which would bring it closer to his/her home.
At this point the fallen member is given the privileges of a hero. Dozens of service members meet us at the plane. They form two columns with a path in the middle through which six pallbearers walk before loading the casket onto the plane. Everyone stands at attention with eyes straight ahead. Then the commander calls, “Present arms!” and the pallbearers begin their slow, solemn march past us, as we, in slow motion, raise our right hands up to salute our fallen comrade and the American flag. We maintain our salute until the casket is firmly locked in place on the plane. The commander then calls out an order, and each of us slowly lowers our hand to our side. As a chaplain, I step out of formation and say a few words about this fallen hero and his/her family. The commander then calls out the last command, and we all do an about-face, thus concluding the special service known as a “patriot detail.”
Ultimately all fallen service members arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where their family will usually meet them. The deceased has been escorted by people and met by patriot details the entire way home. Then he/she will receive one last, very formal military honor before being laid to rest.
Your second deployment was to Iraq. What’s it like entering a war zone?
It is somewhat worrisome and exciting all at once. First is the manner in which we land. Depending on the “action” outside, we might experience a “combat landing,” which is safe, but rough on the system, not fun. Upon arrival in the terminal, we are immediately briefed on what to do when an enemy rocket is about to strike: As soon as you hear a voice on the loudspeaker calling, “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!” you drop to the ground. We were mortared about 60 times in the four months I was there. Once we heard the sirens go off in the middle of services. Another time, just a priest, a minister, and I were in the chapel front office and we took cover beneath the desks.
What is a typical day like for you in Iraq?
There is no typical day. Things happen. One Passover I’d planned to visit a number of bases around Iraq to help with observances and was flying out of Tikrit when I was placed on a helicopter with a different itinerary than what was displayed at the terminal. I should note that flying around a war zone is not like flying United Airlines. Everything is driven by mission needs: the essential people and items—blood, engine parts, supplies—which must arrive by a certain time. Furthermore, transportation is run on a complex coded system. Bottom line, after we made our first flight stop I said, “Can you tell me when we get to the right place?” and the pilot responded, “Ma’am, I’m sorry, we’re not going there today. Here is our itinerary, and you’re coming with us until we return.”
For a split second I thought, “Oh no, there goes my Passover program,” but my next thought was the Air Force motto, “Flexibility is the key to air power,” and I decided to just enjoy the ride. Well, the “mistake” turned out to be a highlight of my deployment. An Iraqi commander sat right next to me and our aerial gunners scanned the horizon for danger as we flew over remote mountainous regions with thousands of rock terraces below. It was an amazing day for a rabbi!
What does Iraq look and feel like?
At night the stars look closer, and the moon looks bigger. When the moon’s in its crescent form and clouds are going by, it has an orangey, dusty appearance that is very mysterious and beautiful. Venus is bright and near the moon—it looks like a cosmic beauty mark.
How did you connect Jews on the base to their Judaism?
I put together a weekly 24-hour Shabbat program that started Friday evening with a brief class on prayer, followed by services and then Kiddush and dinner, which we ate on a white tablecloth-covered table set with fancy paper plates. The next morning we had services, followed by Kiddush and lunch, my Hebrew class—which was also called my adult b’nai mitzvah class—havdalah, dinner, and our weekly Jewish film festival. Some people attended one event; others attended all. I provided activities for everyone, day shift or night shift, a little Jewish or a lot—something was always going on.
So you performed adult bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies in Iraq?
Yes. After an American congregation lent us a Sefer Torah, I advertised that we could conduct adult bar and bat mitzvahs, and two sergeants signed up, a man and a woman. I taught them Hebrew and how to say the blessings, and they studied very diligently every day. We held two b’nai mitzvah ceremonies with our new Sefer Torah in the presence of the top guns of the base—heads of all the staff agencies—most of whom were having their first Jewish experience.
One of the staff sergeants had grown up Jewish, but always felt there was something missing. His mother had died of cancer when he was six years old, and his father did all he could to raise three boys, but they just didn’t get their bar mitzvahs. The sergeant kept on saying, “I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m actually reading Hebrew.” He said that reading directly from the Torah was a dream come true.
The other staff sergeant was born to a Jewish mother and at age six had been adopted by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. She said she always knew she was Jewish, but also felt something was missing. Having the training and experiencing the bat mitzvah was that missing link. When I left Balad, she took over as the lay leader of the Jewish community until she had to leave and another sergeant, whom I’d also trained, took her place. A new rabbi has since arrived.
We heard that you organized a seder for a group of 50 people in a tent.
I led a total of three seders, two at Balad and one elsewhere. Putting a seder together in a deployed location is as logistically complicated as organizing a wedding. You have to make sure that the Passover invitation filters from the top down. Lots of coordination is required for people traveling to Balad from remote locations: lodging, kosher for Passover food for their stay and to take back to their bases, time to talk with the rabbi/me, and more. Then there’s preparing all the food. I always like to serve a variety of charoset—Sephardic, Jamaican, Ashkenazi, Israeli—and, on Balad, our own Iraqi version. And then there’s the service itself.
You also worked to improve relations between Jews and Muslims.
Yes. Once I was able to advise a Muslim soldier on how to observe the Islamic dietary requirements of Halal kosher food. I keep kosher, and I’ve learned how to maintain my kashrut when I deploy. One day a Muslim doctor came to me and asked, “How are you making this work?” I told him, and he was grateful. It struck me as remarkable: Here we were in a Muslim country, and a Muslim-American service member was coming to a rabbi for religious guidance. God bless America!
Another time I approached a Muslim army member with whom I had a good rapport and said: “Our base does not have a Muslim lay leader, and I think the Muslim program would get a really good jumpstart if someone like you were to become the point of contact.” He was worried that he did not have the expertise, so I reassured him: “You don’t have to be an expert; you just have to have the will to help your fellow Muslims get together for lunch or dinner and create a semblance of community.” And so I got the ball rolling for that.
Did you also interact with Christians?
Yes. Any event I put together was open to all, and since Passover is a time of particular interest for many Christians, they especially enjoyed attending our seders.
I’ll never forget the day General Stenner, Commander of the Air Force Reserve Command, came to our base along with an entourage of people. As they visited the chapel, I said, “We have an actual Torah scroll. Would you like to see it?” Yes, they said. I opened up our beautiful simple wood ark, which a Christian service member had made for us, and I could tell the officers were impressed. “Would you like to hold it?” I asked. Moved that I would allow them to do such a thing, each one of them took turns holding the Torah and had his picture taken with it. It was a priceless moment.
How can American Jews help our service people who are stationed in conflict areas?
By supporting families who are waiting for the return of their loved ones. If the Jewish community offered something special—free synagogue membership, honoring military families at Shabbat and holidays—or just called to say “Hello,” it would do a lot to lift the morale of the deployed member, because then he/she would know that the family is being cared for by the community while he/she is away doing his/her job. It’s really crucial and not difficult to raise a community’s consciousness, finding out if any local people are deployed and who the family members are, and then making them feel like they have a piece of the honor the service member experiences.
Do you plan to remain in the U.S. Air Force?
Yes. This is a very important time in history for rabbis to be present. Our Jewish service members, as well as their families, want to know they will be able to observe the holidays in a meaningful way—and it’s not like there are a ton of rabbis stomping down the door to join up. There are a total of 23 active duty Jewish chaplains in all of the combined forces, most of whom are Orthodox, and only two Reform rabbis, Lieutenant Commander Seth Phillips of the Navy and myself. That’s another reason to be here: the opportunity to present to both Jews and non-Jews the spectrum of Jewish observance. And how many of the Orthodox chaplains are going to offer a female service member the opportunity to have a bat mitzvah?
What is the big message about what you’ve learned so far from doing this work?
The big message is that we live in an amazing time in history—a time when so many people are very interested in learning about Judaism. It’s also significant that the United States—a huge superpower—cares to have a rabbi on staff, serving everyone, but in particular also making sure that the needs of a very small percentage of their military’s population are met. And it says a lot about our country that Uncle Sam recognizes a woman rabbi.
Remembering Captain Benjamin Sklaver
The Reform Movement lost a very special neshama (soul) with the death of Captain Benjamin Sklaver, U.S. Army, 32, of Hamden, Connecticut. He was killed by enemy action on October 2, 2009 while on foot patrol in Afghanistan.
Ben was a product of Congregation Mishkan Israel of Hamden, vice president of NFTY-Northeast in 1994–95, and a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
In 2003, while employed at the Centers for Disease Control, he joined the Army Reserve as a civil affairs expert and deployed to the Horn of Africa, where he learned that the high child mortality rate was linked to dirty drinking water. Upon returning to civilian life, Ben founded ClearWater Initiative, a New Haven-based organization that, since 2007, has constructed wells which provide potable water to 6,500 people in underdeveloped Ugandan villages. In northern Uganda, Ben was known as “Moses Ben.”
Ben moved back to New England to be near his fiancée, but was again mobilized, though his Army Reserve commitment was nearly complete.
A friend of my son, Yair, and daughter, Dori, Ben was a kind, humble, committed Jew. He was an immense credit to his family, our Movement, our people, and our country. To learn more about him, view the NBC Nightly News profile or the memorial link.
—Rabbi Harold L. Robinson, Rear Admiral, Chaplain Corps, United States Navy, Retired
Jews & the U.S. Military Today
- Number of Jews on active duty: 10,000+
- Number of Jews in combat zones: 1,500
- Number of Jews killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan: 38
- Number of rabbis serving as military chaplains: 23
(2 Reform, 4 Conservative, 17 Orthodox)
Source: Jewish Welfare Board