By Ch Capt Mordechai Hecht, USAFR
Four years ago I applied to become a chaplain in the US Military. I found an opening at Harrisburg, PA Airforce Base at the Air National Guard — Special Operations. It was a psychological warfare unit, which fascinates me. “I’m in,” I thought to myself.
Before I even entered and passed MEPS, I was invited to come up to the base and meet the personnel and get a taste of what it was like there. Chaplain Qualiman, the wing chaplain at the time, was very gracious and kind. He welcomed me warmly and showed me the ropes. Months went by as my file was being processed and I waited for confirmation. In the meantime, I got a call from a family in Philadelphia. They said they had a Jewish library, mostly Eastern studies books, as their mom was a professor. They were reaching out because they learned that I manage a foundation that receives Jewish libraries for redistribution. Until I knew more, I was reluctant to travel all the way to Philadelphia, even for a sizable and respectable library like this one. As usual, I engaged the donor and tried to find out more about them and the items they wished to donate. “I live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,” the man told me. I replied by asking, “Do you live near the Air National Guard base?” He answered in the affirmative, adding, “In fact, I run the synagogue right there.” I was fascinated because in searching for the nearest Jewish center, that synagogue had come up. Now I was all ears; I wanted to know more and see if in fact there were other Jewish connections that I could perhaps lean into in that region. We got on the phone and talked for a bit. It was enough for me to head to Philly.
I arrived in Philadelphia in the early AM, so I headed to the Chabad out there, and met Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, Director of Friends of Lubavitch on Capital Hill. I had a most inspiring and motivating unplanned private audience with him for over an hour. Then I left and drove over to the family’s home with the library collection. I met the two brothers for a friendly chat, after which we packed up the books and loaded them into my Jeep. It was then that I zoned in for the pitch: “Tell me, did you put on tefillin today? After all, as you said yourself, you are the gabbai of the shul in Harrisburg.” “Actually, rabbi,” one of them said to me, “We only meet once a month on Shabbat, and no, I haven’t put on tefillin since my bar mitzvah 48 years ago! I’d be delighted to.” We wrapped tefillin, exchanged some more kind words, and off I went back to New York.
Shortly after this, I had a hernia injury which set my chaplaincy application back even more over the coming weeks. Finally, I got a call from Harrisburg ANG. “Rabbi,” someone said to me, “the position is now closed as we can’t wait till you recover.
You will have to apply again elsewhere.”
What was the purpose of all that running around to Harrisburg, I wondered. Only G-d truly knows! Still, without the Harrisburg connection I most likely would not have taken that ride out to Philadelphia and put Tefillin on with that gentleman. Thank G-d, I recovered nicely and was eventually approved and gained in the USAFR, and am now attached to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, a long while from Harrisburg. But I believe I fulfilled my mysterious but short Divine mission to Harrisburg.
Originally published in the Three Weeks 5782 Jewish-American Warrior