Each summer, third-year rabbinical students at HUC engage in a fellowship, working for various foundations and synagogues, serving as teachers and Jewish leaders in the communities they serve. This summer, I took a different route: I spent the summer in Montgomery, Alabama, beginning my service as a chaplain candidate for the United States Air Force (USAF). This meant that, for the entire summer, I was learning how to be an officer for the US military, learning military-specific chaplaincy skills, and learning how I, as a current rabbinical student and a future rabbi, can serve those who serve our country, both Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers.
Every morning during the Shacharit (morning) service we read:
אלו דברים שאין להם שעור – These are things to which there are no measure…honoring one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion, arriving for study, morning and evening, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and making peace among people. The study of Torah is equal to them all, for it leads to them all.
As I wrap myself in my tallit, don my tefillin, and recite these words, they always inspire me and trouble me. The Torah teaches and provides endless examples of each of these mitsvot, but how could I possibly even attempt to fulfill each one?
In search of an answer, I turned to the example set for me by my grandfather, Harvey ז׳׳ל. During his life, he taught me the importance of family and to always put others first. He visited the sick, and never failed to honor those in the midst of a life-cycle event—birth, wedding, or death. Yet my grandfather was most known for making connections and peace among people, going as far as acting as representative to the Netherlands for the Grand Masonic Lodge of New York. The Torah names Noah as an איש צדיק, a righteous man. Whenever I think of these words, I think of my grandfather.
My grandfather always wanted to serve in the US military so he could give back to the country that provided so much opportunity for his immigrant parents. Unfortunately, due to a myriad of health issues, he was never able to serve in that way. But I am. And military chaplaincy seemed like the perfect fit: it allows me to pursue and fulfill each and every one of the mitsvot that we hold so dear, as well as to serve our country and to serve those who serve our country every day. It also gives me the opportunity to honor my grandfather’s memory.
This summer, I began my journey into the world of military chaplaincy by attending Officer Training School (OTS), an eight-week program that teaches new officers how to be officers in the USAF. As a chaplain candidate, I participated in most of the training. According to the Geneva Convention, chaplains are considered noncombatants, which means that we cannot carry, fire, or use weapons at any time while in uniform. So, when we spent time out in the field for our simulated deployment, I would go out with my soldiers, but I wouldn’t participate in the shooting practice or carry a weapon of my own. I did, however, have the opportunity to do all of the obstacle courses and the physical training, and to really spend time with the other officers alongside whom I will be serving in the future.
The other portion of my training was focused entirely on chaplaincy—how to serve not only my Jewish soldiers but all of the soldiers in my care. As a rabbi and a chaplain, I have multiple responsibilities: to bring Judaism to my Jewish soldiers, and to bring comfort, healing, and peace to all of my soldiers through presence, talking, and prayer.
Yet I hadn’t realized that I would be acting almost as an ambassador for Judaism to those soldiers who may never even have met a Jew before or had any authentic interaction with Judaism at all. In speaking on behalf of God, the Prophet Isaiah teaches us: “Not only shall you be My servant as I raise up the tribes of Jacob, restoring the survivors of Israel; but I will also make you a light unto the nations, in order that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). Now, just as my grandfather was an ambassador for American Freemasonry, I have the privilege of being an ambassador for American Reform Judaism.
Upon arrival at OTS we were broken up into flights, the flight being the smallest unit of soldiers within the USAF. My flight consisted of future officers from a myriad of fields, backgrounds, and beliefs. There were four chaplain candidates in my flight: myself, an evangelical minister, a Catholic priest, and a Christian-endorsed humanist. During our time together, we got to know one another quite well, and we had the opportunity to teach one another about our various traditions, as well as work together to provide spiritual and emotional support for those around us.
My roommate, an evangelical Christian, was previously enlisted in the Army but decided to commission in the Air Force upon becoming a pilot. He was very kind to me from the start. He knew that I hadn’t previously been in the military, and I stood out (I was the only person at OTS with a religious beard), so he helped me adjust to military life. He really took the time to learn about me, about what being a rabbi is like, and about Judaism. That was incredibly meaningful to me. This person, whom I had never met before, took the time to get to know me and what is important to me, even in a stressful environment like military training. By the end of our time together at OTS, we were doing text studies together, and he always made sure I was provided grape juice and candles on Friday nights.
This summer I had the privilege of experiencing first-hand the unique world that is the military. I am a liberal Jew, occupying a piece of a space that is traditionally conservative and Christian. The civil and political discourse in our country has become increasingly polarized, and it’s hard for anyone of opposing viewpoints to have conversations with one another, especially on social media. The military, however, was surprisingly the one place where we could have tough conversations in deep, meaningful ways because we all were there for the sole purpose of supporting one another in our love for our country. The US military was the place where I could finally put it all together: my love of Judaism, my love of teaching, my love of caring for others, my love of country, and my love of Torah. This work, this manifestation of my budding rabbinate, is my Avodat HaKodesh—my holy work.
Matt Derrenbacher is a rabbinical student at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. Matt is currently student rabbi for Temple Beth-El in Brownsville, Texas, as well as Temple B’nai Israel in Petoskey, Michigan. Matt serves as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force and a chaplain candidate.