In 1978 when I raised my hand and swore to defend the Constitution of the United States I had no idea what I was getting into. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, near what was then the US Army Chaplain School at Fort Hamilton, NY. Knowing that I wanted to be a rabbi, I was always curious about what went on behind those walls. So, when I learned of the chaplain candidate program, I applied and was accepted as the first female Jewish candidate in any branch of service. No one in my family had ever served in the military and I reported to the Chaplain Officer Basic Course without a clue as to how to put on a uniform. Never in my wildest imagination could I have imagined standing here now at the end of a long and rich career.
I graduated from rabbinical school in 1981, and began an amazing journey, from Korea to Germany, to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, and culminating in the most intense learning experience of my life as a student at the US Army War College. The Army allocates significant resources towards training leaders. Trust is a foundation of leadership. One of the most important things I learned was that- “Trust is a risk game. The leader must ante up first.”
As chaplains we see each Soldier as an individual, made in the image of God, providing comfort and support, encouragement and a listening ear. When tragedy strikes, as it too often does, people feel helpless to respond. No one knows what to say, what to do. It is the military chaplain who has the holy privilege of being the person who represents the command as that first line of defense. Successful leadership demands genuine caring.
There have been so many poignant opportunities to express that caring. Military service can be a lonely experience as a Jew, and it is our chaplains who foster a sense of community among Jewish servicemembers. I recall one Chanukkah at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. A SGT who participated in the Chanukkah program each night confided that, “I didn’t realize how much I was longing to connect with my people.” Or the seder at FOB Taji where one young woman told me, “It almost feels like home.”
Leadership means setting priorities and following through with commitments. It sometimes means learning to say no, though one of my guiding principles has been, “Find 99 reasons to say yes rather than 1 reason to say no.” It means leading by example. As chaplains, we build relationships by being with others, putting up tents, eating in the DFAC, or serving on guard duty. We earn respect which is fundamental to effective leadership by our willingness to engage with Soldiers wherever they are.
Leadership means recognizing that none of us can do it alone. The project is never complete until the thank you notes have been written. I am so grateful for my physical and mental well-being, for the support of my family and friends, for the incredible and unique opportunities I have had to serve God and country as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve. I pray God’s blessing on each of you, and God bless America.