By IS1 Steven Douglas, US Navy Retired
I identify with many others who have written articles for the Warrior on how they stood firm in their God-given and First Amendment rights to exercise their religious beliefs. Others may identify with my story, so I’m sharing it in the hope that others will relate and see that much is to be gained by getting more involved without fear of denominational differences.
As long as I can recall, I always wanted to learn more about Judaism. I consider my Reform Jewish upbringing to be a starting point to learn more. While serving active duty, my first Jewish service was in boot camp at the local chapel. I was pleasantly surprised that we of the minority were given a tranquil place to pray and be with others of our faith. It didn’t matter if one had a background of Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.
I continued attending services while at my first shore-based duty station in Pearl Harbor. The rabbi there expanded my knowledge and my desire to learn increased. Once again, it was great to have Shabbat services on base to bring some Judaism into my life.
While serving on the USS Carl Vinson, I started attending Shabbat services on board. We usually had about six to nine people, rarely a minyan. We did not have a rabbi onboard, but we did have a lay leader. I suppose it was then that I became familiar with the importance of lay leadership. Sure, my Reform background was a bit of a detriment compared to some, but that didn’t stop me. Others may choose to
hide, or seek only that which is familiar or comfortable. but to me it just presented another challenge, which I readily accepted.
When I volunteered to be a lay leader on the USS Tarawa, a large deck Amphib, I quickly learned how valuable the Aleph Institute was through the materials and supplies they sent. I also realized that I had a lot more to learn about Judaism. What I lacked in knowledge and experience I made up for while conducting services in the best and most meaningful way that I could, which was to share what I knew.
Others who have written for the Warrior stress how a lay leader is primarily a facilitator. This is really just a small part of it, however, because without a rabbi a lay leader is much more than a facilitator. Rabbis teach, and lay leaders often strive to do the same. I did my best to share my knowledge with others. During the week, I would use what little free time I had to select articles on the weekly parsha in preparation for Shabbat. At the time, I found Aish, Chabad, and Mesora to be the most helpful websites. One has to be very careful when using the internet as there is a lot of deceptive, misleading, and false information out there.
As lay leader on board the USS Tarawa, USS Boxer and later on board the USS Gettysburg, I learned that the chain of command normally supported services during Shabbat on Friday nights and on Saturday mornings. Some, however, had a problem with it if training was scheduled at the same time—as it often was—on Saturday mornings. It’s important to stand firm in your beliefs and conduct services consistently and on time. That way, the chain of command will eventually realize that you and your religion are for real. Jews have the right to conduct services on our day of rest just as the majority does on Sunday. I am sure the chaplain on board supported our right to hold services on Shabbat.
I found that flexibility and consistency were key to success. During an operation, duty always comes first as events change rapidly. However, exercises take advance planning and can usually be scheduled not during services. However, sometimes an unforeseen event occurs at the same time as Shabbat services. When that happens, a lay leader must be flexible.
I wasn’t the only one conducting services and I was fortunate to get training from several Jewish chaplains. When I first moved to the DC area, Chaplain Cohen conducted services in the local chapel. Afterward we would walk to a local Jewish family’s house on base for the Friday night meal. Chaplain Cohen would send us weekly emails with interesting insights about the parsha. He may not have known it, but that is exactly what I needed at the time. His summaries and interpretations were extremely interesting. He also introduced me to Purim, a holiday I had never really experienced before (which is hard to believe in retrospect).
While on board the USS Boxer, services were conducted by Rabbi Joel Newman. It didn’t matter whether he presided over a small or large congregation, as he was genuinely knowledgeable, and his positive attitude was really uplifting.
Attending services during a holiday is always special, especially given all the time we have to work in between. I recall Passover services on board the USS Tarawa for example, with a “traveling rabbi” on board who came specifically to conduct it. All kinds of Jewish sailors showed up, most of whom I didn’t know since they didn’t attend Shabbat services.
My knowledge and Jewish experience took a quantum leap during the time I was lay leader on board my last ship, the USS Gettysburg. I recall one instance during a long deployment in the Arabian Sea as the high holidays approached. The USS Enterprise was also in the Gulf at the time and rumor had it that they had a rabbi on board. I heard they were having Rosh Hashanah services and thought to myself,
Could I possibly attend? To do so would mean they’d have to get me there at government expense and take a break from daily training, a highly unlikely occurrence.
I later heard from others that the question of whether to allow me to attend created some controversy within my chain of command. After all, we had training scheduled. But as it turns out, the rabbi on board the USS Enterprise was an admiral and had ordered that I and other Jewish members should be flown aboard by helicopter should we wish to attend services. Of course, most of this is RUMINT and I don’t have proof of it, but let’s just say that the ultimate ruling came about because of a certain Jewish admiral-chaplain. We were flown aboard and enjoyed a meaningful Rosh Hashanah service.
In addition, the next day they had a steel beach picnic. It appeared as though all hands were celebrating the new year! I found Rear Admiral (Chaplain) Harold Robinson to be very helpful. He taught me a lot about conducting services and answered my questions. The next day, I arrived back at the USS Gettysburg via the Enterprise helicopter, ready to prepare for the next high holiday, Yom Kippur.
Besides conducting and facilitating services, as lay leader I also occasionally had the opportunity to recite an evening blessing on the 1MC, the ship’s public address system. I received positive feedback for the stories and prayers that I shared, which I had found while conducting my usual weekly research on the parsha. I always looked for something to share that didn’t seem too religious in the sense that non-Jewish service members could also appreciate it. I found insights from many different writers and always concluded with a simple prayer.
While in port at Naval Station Mayport, I attended services at the local Chabad shul in Ponte Vedra Beach with Rabbi Kurinsky. I became a regular when in port and it certainly expanded my horizons as I continued to practice Judaism at my own pace. In time, I decided to “go kosher”—a difficult but not impossible goal while on active duty.
Occasionally, we discussed how we could get more sailors and soldiers to come to Chabad. I was usually the only active-duty member present for services. There is no easy answer to this question as attendance is an individual decision. But like I experienced in the military, people will come to services when they want to, and more often during holidays. I concluded that the best way to let others know, whether on base or aboard a ship, is by word of mouth.
Serving as a lay leader was one of the most valuable positions I ever had while serving in the military. I enjoyed helping others, bringing meaning to their lives while sharing my knowledge and inspiration. I wholeheartedly recommend lay leadership. It was how I became incrementally introduced to more Judaism. Everything was because I chose to do it; nothing was ever pushed on me.
Today I continue to do what I did as a lay leader— during weekdays I read articles primarily from Chabad.org and the Mesora’s Jewish Times (in addition to books available at shul) to gain insight from many great sages. In a way it helped transform me from someone with relatively little experience to someone who gained incredible knowledge and understanding. Torah knowledge is unending as there are so many levels of interpretation. I am still growing in ways I did not envision.
Originally published in the Shavuos 5782 Jewish-American Warrior