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COL David Wallen (USA Ret) and LTC Benjamin Wallen, USA

For the past 35 years, David and Benjamin Wallen have had the pleasure and honor of serving as Jewish Lay Leaders across three continents, ten communities, and through three combat deployments. The following article is not a history of what COL David Wallen and LTC Benjamin Wallen accomplished. Rather it provides a unique perspective about Lay Leadership and the lessons learned throughout their combined US Army careers. Their message? Anyone can be a Lay Leader. However you mold that position to your personality and community will be just right. They feel strongly that if they can do it, anyone can.


David: What motivates a person to become a Lay Leader? It might be a desire to serve the community, to share one’s Jewish knowledge with others, a thought that you’ll meet some interesting people, or a combination of factors. My motivation was guilt: I had two sons who would reach bar mitzvah age within the next three years, and I chose an assignment at SHAPE Headquarters in Belgium where I knew there would not be a large Jewish community. The family arrived in the summer and learned quickly that the small Jewish community had suspended all activities until the fall. At the first service in September, I realized the only Jewish activity was a short Kabbalat Shabbat (evening) service. I volunteered to be Lay Leader that first evening so my sons would not look back and regret that they didn’t have an opportunity to celebrate their bar mitzvah. It was the best decision of my life.

Benjamin: As an Army brat growing up in Europe from 6th grade through my senior year in high school, I very much enjoyed attending services with my parents leading them. My father wrote his own divrei Torah and found ways to incorporate current events and humor every week. He inspired me with his ability to lead Passover seders for the entire community in SHAPE, Belgium for both nights where over 100 community members from multiple faiths participated. My parents prepared me and my brother for our bar mitzvahs as well. When we moved to Frankfurt, Germany my father served as Lay Leader, supporting the full-time rabbi. From my perspective it was amazing how he made everyone feel welcome and part of the community.

However, when I got to my first duty assignment at Fort Hood, Texas, I did not immediately jump at the opportunity to serve as Lay Leader. I didn’t feel I had the same capabilities or desire to spend time writing a d’var Torah each week, lead large community seders, and foster fellowship among community members. I soon learned that a rabbi led Jewish services on base. After going to services a few times, the rabbi asked if I would consider serving as the Lay Leader. I asked what he had in mind. He said he wanted someone to help lead services when he was not available. I appreciated serving as backup and was only called to lead services twice during my time at Fort Hood.

When you volunteer to become Lay Leader, you are instantly infused with Jewish wisdom and knowledge (I joke). If, for some unknown reason, the infusion doesn’t happen – don’t worry! The Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) and Aleph Institute are there to help. The most important thing to remember about being a Lay Leader is that there is no SOP to follow. If you take on the role, then you can decide what it means for you and your community. My father was fortunate enough to attend several annual Lay Leader conferences in Europe, where all the rabbis in the region and many Lay Leaders gathered for a few days of sharing ideas and inspiration. I had the opportunity to take West Point Cadets to a few of Aleph Institute’s annual military training courses for chaplains and Lay Leaders. 

One of the very first things my father learned from an Orthodox rabbi was that when conducting a service, be comfortable! If you know a little Hebrew, use it. If you are unable to read Hebrew or only know a few prayers, use English. Sometimes you might have a member of the community who is better versed in Hebrew than you, but that person doesn’t want to be the Lay Leader. Encourage him or her to help you, but don’t make them so uncomfortable that they stop coming to your services and other activities.

Sometimes you may be the only one at the service or activity you lead, and that is okay. While stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, there was no rabbi or active Jewish community on post. The closest synagogue was in Topeka, about an hour away. I was getting ready to take command of my company and the thought occurred that I was responsible for the training and welfare of my soldiers; however, I also had the opportunity to provide spiritual support to those soldiers across the installation who couldn’t attend Friday night services. 

When I got certified as Lay Leader for Fort Riley I got quite a start in that role. Within the same week that I initiated weekly Shabbat services, I took company command and my second child was born! As for my father, I wanted to ensure that my children and lovely wife had services to attend. I led services every Friday night, and probably three out of every five weeks the service was for my family only. I was never discouraged for two reasons: Regardless if soldiers came to services, I was providing an opportunity for those who may want to attend, and my family was able to enjoy Shabbat services together.

David: Be prepared to improvise. You will encounter situations that you didn’t anticipate when you volunteered to be Lay Leader. I was beginning to feel like I had a comfortable routine in Belgium, when a new couple showed up and asked me to name their baby girl. I only had sons, and this was before the internet, but thankfully I had a week to figure out what a baby naming ceremony was. The short answer? It can be whatever you want it to be. The first suggestion I have when someone asks you to do something special is this: Find out what they want the service or event to include. Then use the Internet. Blend those resources and ideas together until you come up with something you think will work. Do it from the heart, and everyone will be grateful for the memories you gave them. 

Benjamin: Know that wherever you are, especially when deployed, there is incredible support available to you. As a Lay Leader during three different deployments to Iraq, I was always amazed at the level of support from CONUS-based organizations, the entire chain of command, and support agencies in theater. The Aleph Institute, JWB, Jewish War Veterans (JWV), and local synagogues around your stateside base or community where you grew up are wonderful sources of support. Even as a Lay Leader for the West Point Jewish Community, I receive emails prior to every holiday and observance from the Aleph Institute asking if they may send items for our service members. Throughout my career, I have only experienced positive support from my various commanders and chaplains while in garrison or on deployment. This support is essential as my skill set does not include leading High Holiday services. Thank goodness for theater-wide High Holiday services which are available via traveling rabbis. As the Lay Leader, I coordinate with the senior chaplain in my area of operations to find out where services are located and provide that information to our units and Jewish community. 

Other holiday celebrations such as Chanukah and Passover lend themselves to community fellowship. The care packages sent by the Aleph Institute and JWB for both holidays were amazing. For Passover in Iraq in 2013, support came from two unexpected sources. The KBR contractors, who have provided many services on our operating base, created seder plates to ensure we had enough for all. I pulled up a high-resolution picture off the internet and emailed it to them. They enlarged the picture to 15 inches in diameter, cut plexiglass to the same size, and adhered the picture to the plexiglass for instant seder plates. 

Next I learned that the head chef to the US Ambassador to Iraq wanted to provide kosher matzah. He went to the local market to purchase grain to make the matzah. This meant our matzah was made with the same type of grain from the same region where our Jewish ancestors observed the very first Passover seders! The result was a Passover seder made possible through senior leadership as well as local and stateside organizations’ support. 

Lay Leadership takes time, a precious commodity. If you are a Lay Leader, I recommend reading as much as you can. The internet is a great resource when you need an idea quickly. A wonderful book that I use is The Jewish Book of Why, with short answers to questions that begin with “Why do Jews…” You can learn things about the holidays, rituals, and other topics in five minutes or less. Think of yourself as a sponge, and you can soak up information and knowledge through reading, reaching out to others, listening to the people who look to you as leader, and your own family. Remember that it’s not how much a sponge soaks up that counts, but what the sponge does with all of it. Let your commitment and knowledge spread over the community you serve, and you will have a positive impact that can inspire others to accept a leadership role as well.

David: Don’t forget to have fun as Lay Leader! The Jewish holidays are perfect opportunities to bring the community together. In Belgium, we bought a sukkah kit that we could reuse every year, and the families decorated it. We had Purim carnivals where the adults had just as much fun as the children. We always had a Passover seder, which was a great outreach program as well. The JWB provided an Army Reserve rabbi to support the community during Passover and for the High Holiday period. Your community may not be large enough, and JWB resources may not be available, but you can always ask. If you are stateside and there is a civilian Jewish community in the area, link up with them for special events. If there is no civilian Jewish community, there may be civilian Jews who would welcome the opportunity to celebrate with you.   

Benjamin: Indeed, there is no need to feel that if you volunteered to be Lay Leader, that you “must” be able to do everything. As a Lay Leader at Fort Carson and local Jewish communities less than 30 minutes from post, my role was to help make sure that information about local services was provided to units across post. This task was more than enough for my position. There is no list of what you should provide the community as Lay Leader. Whatever you choose is perfect. This concept applies not only to the type of community services you work to provide, but also what you feel comfortable doing as far as leading services. When I was deployed to Iraq in 2009, I found myself at Shabbat services in Camp Victory Base with an E-5 as the Lay Leader who didn’t know Hebrew but decided to provide services for the community anyway. There were prayers in English and then a post-Shabbat services meal. How wonderful to have this example of a young leader choosing to step up for the community. Without these efforts, there would not have been any services at all.  

The Covid pandemic has inspired communities to find new ways to enable distanced fellowship; albeit the ability to support remote attendance is certainly not new. In Iraq in 2012-2013, I conducted prayers that service members dialed into from across Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2020, community members began attending services remotely across the globe. Streaming services at the United States Military Academy has significantly increased the aperture for those who wish to attend. The community of 15 to 25 cadets, faculty, and community members has grown to almost 50 attending in person with an additional 20 remote attendees who are cadets, students at other universities, family members, and graduates. Including remote services and special celebrations as one of the tools in your Lay Leader toolkit can help the community stay connected. 

As a leader in our Armed Forces, we thank all Lay Leaders for their service and willingness to take on this role in their respective communities. As we began, we end by saying that whatever you are able to do is wonderful. Thank you for supporting our amazing service members. 

This article was originally published in the Shavuot 2021 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.