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CAPT Mark Vandroff, USN Ret. 

In February of 2019, the Aleph Institute was kind enough to ask me to address the annual training seminar they host for Jewish chaplains of the Armed Forces of the United States.  As I was coming to end of my thirty year career as a line officer in the United States Navy, Aleph asked that I provide my perspective as a Jew who had held multiple Navy commands, on the nature of military chaplaincy and the special responsibilities ordained Rabbis who become chaplains have both to the commands they serve and to their fellow Jews.  I greatly enjoyed giving the talk and making new friends from among the dedicated chaplains attending that year’s training.   Because it is my practice to speak from slides and notes, there were no prepared remarks from that evening.  However, the Aleph Institute invited me to capture my thoughts in this article for their magazine.   My talk that night included three broad themes I will attempt to capture in this article; first, my experience as a Jew serving in the United States Navy, second, my advice to military chaplains of all faith groups based on my experience as a line officer, and third, my specific advice to Rabbis who accept commissions as chaplains in the Armed Forces of the United States.

I was born and raised in the town of Lakeland, Florida.  It was a relatively small city, located roughly half way between Tampa and Orlando, and during my childhood in the 1970’s and 1980’s, still very much a part of the Deep South.  The small (less than 250 member families) synagogue where I received after-school religious instruction and celebrated my Bar Mitzvah was the only Jewish religious institution for 40 miles in any direction.  In my high school class of over 600 students, I was one of three Jews.  Unlike my family in New York or Miami, I was always aware of being a member of a religious minority.  Thankfully, that minority status almost never resulted in ill treatment.  With the exception of one exclusionary country club my family could not join and a small number of misguided peers who used the occasional slur word, my childhood was blissfully free of anti-Semitism.  

My service in the Navy was also free of any institutional anti-Semitism.  What I did encounter was the occasional fellow service members who would speak or act out of a lack of awareness.  As an example, a senior officer once assigned me to be a ship’s duty officer on Rosh Hashanah.  I offered to trade duty with another officer but he did not understand why I did not want to stand duty on the day it was my turn to do so.   Luckily, our squadron chaplain (who happened to be a Roman Catholic priest) educated this officer on the significance of Rosh Hashanah and my duty swap was approved.  In general, religious observance was always a matter of informed compromise, especially on sea duty.  A watch officer on a deployed warship cannot take off his or her watch every Saturday.  Given the infeasibility of a Navy ship maintaining a separate set of dishes for a single Jewish sailor onboard, it was not possible to fully observe the laws of Kashrut.  I, like any American Jew who makes the choice to serve his or her country in the United States Navy, understood that I would have to make the best choices I could throughout my career in order to balance the performance of my military duties with the observance of my religious obligations.  At every stage in my career, Navy leaders were always willing to work with me in good faith to help me achieve that balance.  In the cases where those leaders came from communities with significant Jewish populations, engaging with them about these issues was easy.  In those cases where leaders had less or no familiarity with Jews or their religious practices, thoughtful chaplains from all faith groups helped to educate them and facilitate my observances.

Like many of the Americans who choose to serve their nation in uniform, may career entailed several moves and I was stationed in many diverse communities across the country. In each new duty station I had to figure out how I would use the existing resources of the Navy and the civilian community to achieve the best Jewish experience practical.  For example, during a three year tour in Mississippi, there was not a synagogue within 60 miles of my duty station.  I had to learn to do as much observance by myself as I could and then plan trips when possible to cities with Jewish communities.  Alternatively, while in command of a Navy shore facility in Bethesda, Maryland, I lived among a sizable Jewish community and had a choice of several synagogues, representing all the major movements in American Judaism, within a close distance to my home.   There, a Jewish life was far easier to achieve. 

My soon to be Bat Mitzvah daughter, growing up while I served in that command, has had a vastly different Jewish experience than I had at her age.  When I took her at age 6 to see my alma mater, the United States Naval Academy, she asked why the Christian chapel on campus was much larger than the Jewish chapel.  When I explained that there were more Christian students than Jewish students, she asked why that was.  In her childhood neighborhood, there would roughly the same number of Jewish children as non-Jewish children.  Although now old enough to understand the demographic reality, she has yet to experience life as a religious minority.  During my service in the Navy I was always part of a religious minority, but because of the general goodwill of my fellow service members and the specific actions of dedicated, professional chaplains, I was never mistreated due to that minority status. 

While my Jewish observance varied as I moved to each new duty assignment, my Jewish values were a constant source of strength and foundational to my military service.  From the Torah command to be happy on the Sabbath, I learned that as a leader I had to project happiness and optimism in front of those I was privileged to lead.  From the discipline of maintaining the correct sequence in donning and doffing tefillin, I learned to be disciplined in the sequence of starting and stopping engines and generators on a warship.  Judaism taught me that right and wrong were not feelings that came from inside myself but objective moral standards set for me by my Creator and articulated in scripture.  Therefore, living by a military code of conduct established not by my feelings but by the laws of a democratic society was made easier by the teachings of my faith.  At every turn in my career, Judaism served to make me a better naval officer.

I have discussed above how much I benefited from the principled actions of military chaplains of all faiths throughout my naval career.  I have also benefited from the pastoral care my people and I received from chaplains in the toughest of times.  I was present at the Washington Navy Yard shooting on September 16, 2013.  Many of the people in my organization were subjected to gunfire and two close colleagues were among the twelve people who lost their lives.  The chaplains of all faiths deployed by the Navy to assist and counsel the survivors brought the light of their wisdom into the darkness of the aftermath.  In my own case, I was befriended by a Navy Rabbi who helped both me and the command heal in the aftermath of the event.  Although the Rabbi was member of the Reconstructionist Movement, and therefore had a very different approach and understanding of Judaism than I did, his ability to help our command deal with grief was a model for chaplains of all faiths.      

The first key lesson from these stories of my interactions with chaplains is that chaplains need to be constantly educating leaders at all levels about the religious practices and needs of service members of all faiths.  Informed leaders make better decisions and will engage their service members from a position of knowledge rather than make mistakes born of ignorance.  Second, military chaplains in the Armed Forces of the United States need to be passionately committed to facilitating the religious needs of all faith groups.  The members of today’s military represent a broader set of religious traditions than ever before.  As Jews, our history of persecution and exclusion should help us understand than that the free exercise of religion has to apply to all faiths lest it end up not applying to any faith.  Third, chaplains are there to care for the service members during trying times.  Good pastoral is a skill no chaplain can be without.  Many fine Rabbis, and clergy of other faiths as well, can be excellent educators or scholars.  However, if a member of the clergy cannot counsel during times of trouble, military chaplaincy is not for them.  Finally, chaplains are staff corps officers.  Like officers of the Medical Corps or Judge Advocate General’s Corps, they are commissioned to provide expert advice and services in their particular area of expertise.  Chaplains need the humility to remember they are not the ones in command.

Finally, there are special obligations for Rabbis of all denominations who accept commissions as chaplains in the Armed Forces of the United States.  Just as I had commanders who, while well intentioned, never met any Jews or knew anything about Judaism, a Rabbi serving as a chaplain will likely be assigned at some point in their career to as the sole chaplain supporting units where many of the people serving, including the commander, will have had no exposure to Judaism.  For these fellow service members, the Jewish chaplain represents all of Judaism.  In the United States, this will not be the case for Protestant or Roman Catholic clergy serving as chaplains, since most of the military personnel they serve will have known other ministers and priests in their civilian lifelives.  For Rabbis, and other clergy representing minority faith groups, there is a special, unwritten obligation to be a good ambassador and role model of their faith.

At the end of my talk, I thanked the Aleph Institute for the offer to speak to the chaplains in attendance and said I hoped my message would be useful to them as they facilitated the religious observance for all the military personnel they served.  The talk that night gave me the personal opportunity to reflect two things that have brought joy and meaning to my life; my belief in and observance of Judaism and a military career serving the United States of America. 

Originally published in the May-June 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.