Chaplain (MAJ) Menachem Stern, USA
Sometimes, the greatest success can be found in the smallest crowd. That’s what I learned, during last year’s High Holiday season.
A steady stream of people came through our home and Jewish chapel on Sukkot. In the evenings of the holiday, we held services in the chapel sukkah, and afterward we handed out to-go meals for the whole community, and a few families came to our smaller sukkah at our home as well. On Sukkot day, we invited our service members and veterans to join us for the mitzvah of shaking the lulav and etrog. People came out of the woodwork for this. Throughout the holiday, we had many service members use the sukkah by the chapel—whether I was at the sukkah or not.
For Simchat Torah we had a beautiful service, but in contrast to our Sukkot experience, it was not very well attended. Just half a dozen people plus myself and my family showed up. Despite that, those in attendance were very lively. We danced with the Torah, recited the verses of hakafot, and enjoyed a festive meal.
Afterwards, I received an email, which greatly encouraged me. It read:
To All: I would like to tell you about my experience on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. I was determined to attend the morning service of Shemini Atzeret since it includes the Yizkor memorial service, and I looked forward to saying Kaddish. I was sure we would have a 10 men minyan, as required under orthodox auspices. To my amazement, we had only 5 congregants (3 men and 2 women) plus the Rabbi and his family (his wife and 3 girls) who attended, certainly no minyan.
The Rabbi proceeded as if he had a whole congregation before him and read every name in the published Yizkor book. We attendees read our respective small portion. All who usually attend the memorial service should have been there; he did it well.
During the evening service, there were no other children apart from the Rabbi’s; there were only the five of us from the morning before, plus one more lady. The sermon was provided to us as if we were a large congregation. The Rabbi’s enthusiasm was boundless. Towards the end of the service, he danced with the Torah as we followed him 7 times on the walkway in a big circle around the benches. He interlocked arms with us men, alternatively as we strolled behind him with the Torah.
In view of his personal appeal, I decided also to attend the next morning’s Simchat Torah service. We did not fill the chapel with children (most were probably in school) nor with congregants; there were no congregant children, and we escalated all the way up to 8 attendees, including one young active-duty Lieutenant who the Rabbi trusted to carry the second Torah. But this time only 3 times, dancing around the aisles inside the chapel. At the end, his wife insisted that the Lieutenant and I join their family for lunch. At the table were also three Chaplain Assistants and a LTC Chaplain (whose name I did not catch).
Home-cooked Jewish food was served, and all was very well arranged in a pleasant environment.
With this experience, I can only say that the service was pleasant, and his sermons showed his vast knowledge of the scriptures and associated commentaries while trying to bring them into modern relevance. In addition, his wife was accommodating and helpful, distributing food and drinks for consumption during the services and snacks afterward.
It just showed me how much an event can mean to someone, even if it doesn’t seem like an obvious success.
Originally published in the Tishrei 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.