By Chaplain LCDR Yitzi Rosenberg, USCGA
Military service wasn’t something I heard much about in the Satmar Chassidic community of Williamsburg, New York, where I grew up. My lack of knowledge regarding the military was such that when I first got involved, I only knew of the Army; I didn’t know there were other branches. But from a young age I always felt a deep desire to serve others, just like my grandmother did daily in New York hospitals until the age of 91. My grandmother came from a family of kohanim in Sighetu Marmației, Romania, and community service was an intrinsic part of their identity. Through my military service I feel connected to my extended family and thereby perpetuate their legacy across oceans and spanning centuries. It was only once I moved to Miami that I learned about the Coast Guard Auxiliary and formed a connection with the local units.
My interest in the military was formed mostly out of gratitude and appreciation for my grandparents, who found a safe refuge in America. My grandmother came from Romania went through the Holocaust. Although she did not speak about what happened to her, this much I know: She was assigned to work in the kitchen of a concentration camp, and one day she got caught saving vegetable peels, presumably for her fellow inmates and herself. The SS guards promptly sent her to the gas chambers. By some incredible miracle, they ran out of gas that day, and she survived. After the war, my grandmother came to Detroit, Michigan, where she lived until my father was born and then settled in New York with my grandfather. She always spoke very highly of America and expressed gratitude for this country. She would tell us if not for America she would not have survived (she lived until age 94). Although it was too painful for her to share the details of her liberation, it was clear that American troops were involved. This simple truth struck a deep chord and her feelings remain with me.
I joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary as an officer in 2011. My first assignment was to be an admin officer in the Coast Guard HQ 7th District in Miami for a year on a cutter named Margaret Norvell (USCGC Margaret Norvell WPC 1105). I would typically pray after taking the last shift of the day, which was from 4:00 AM until 8:30 AM. At some point the captain of the ship said to me, “What’s going on? When you pray and study, it’s as if we don’t exist!” My prayers may not have been something he understood, but plenty of crew members were interested in learning. After dinner we would have briefings and then I would lead a nondenominational spiritual service for 45 minutes, which included Torah study and resiliency ideas (or as we called it, spiritual fitness). Between 15-20 Coasties attended out of a crew of 32.
Later on we were tasked with intercepting migrants from places like Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic and returning them to their native countries. Over the course of the several days they spent on board with us, those who recognized my yarmulke and tzitzit asked me to keep them in my mind and prayers. By now it was 2014, and I wanted to do more for people, but there was no chaplaincy program yet unique to the Coast Guard.
While aboard the cutter and at every subsequent assignment, I always strived to take on tasks that were conducive to my religious practice. For example, on Shabbat I worked in the kitchen where I would cut up vegetables. Later, I worked as the quartermaster of the watch, and then as the assistant PAO of the unit. At one point in my military career I flew over 3,000 search and rescue hours. During that time I would not fly or have duty on Shabbat, but if I had training I would stay on board or at the base. These positions enabled me to remain faithful to my observance.
In the meantime, every time something religious came up, I would invariably be tasked with the prayer or invocation. I developed an amazing relationship with my mentor, Chaplain CAPT Tom J. Walcott. Early on he told me he wanted to help the Coast Guard chaplaincy grow. When he transferred out to the Atlantic East region and became the chaplain of the US Coast Guard, he started requesting Auxiliary chaplains to assist him. It was an honor and a privilege for me to become the first Jewish Coast Guard Auxiliary chaplain in 2018.
For the first two years, I was the only Jewish chaplain in the Auxiliary. I traveled constantly between the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, Cape May (boot camp) in New Jersey, and Miami, Florida. With phone calls and emails coming in on a steady basis, I became the point person for all Jewish requests and religious needs. Since then, several other Jewish chaplains have joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and we split the load.
I feel it is only right to recognize two organizations that make everything possible for me—Aleph Institute and Kosher Troops. I have an immense amount of gratitude and appreciation for them. Lastly, I can’t thank my wife enough for all her support, dedication, and sacrifice.
After serving many different positions in the Coast Guard, becoming a chaplain has really been a homecoming for me. I loved serving in the Coast Guard of sunny Miami and at sea, and now I am back in New York. But no matter where I find myself, I have the same goal: I strive to be better every day, to recruit others, work as a team, and serve those that answer the call. My ultimate goal is to make a kiddush Hashem, to sanctify G-d’s name with my role, and I hope it shows in everything I do.
Originally published in the Three Weeks 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.