Why I Am a Navy Chaplain

Posted on: Wednesday November 11, 2020

By Rabbi Melinda Zalma

When people ask me why I became a Navy chaplain, I half-jokingly answer, “It was a great option for a summer job during rabbinical school.” After all, what could be better than getting paid to be in Newport, on per diem, debating theology with clergy of vastly different backgrounds than I, and saving a sinking ship? While this may be true as to the original lure of my journey in the Chaplain Corps, very quickly my calling became deeper.  

During the first week of Chaplain training, the Deputy Basic Course Officer, Rabbi Moe Kaprow, implored me to make the Navy a career and what he said to me has stayed with me throughout my journey. I have always felt a deep gratitude for living in America, especially as a Jew. The religious freedoms built into our Constitution have extended to the Jewish community ever since George Washington’s letter to the Touro Synagogue in the earliest days of our country. I believe serving in the military is both a way to give back to my country and to contribute to religious tolerance in America. 

Beyond this patriotic duty to serve, Chaplain Kaprow emphasized that Jewish chaplaincy was important for the Jewish people in the military, in the country as a whole, and for the greater Jewish community. He helped me see that my service is Kedushat Hashem, an act of sanctifying God. First, the Jews in the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard that I serve far away from their home Jewish communities and from any organized Jewish life. Since there are so few Jewish chaplains, many have little opportunity to be guided by a rabbi. My presence helps connect them to their heritage and their religion.  

The second part of Kedushat HaShem is in my interactions with non-Jews. Especially in the military, there are people who have never met a Jew, and may only know of Jews from stereotypes. My presence as an officer, a chaplain, and a rabbi is an opportunity to dispel these stereotypes and create positive relationships with those of other faiths. I also show that Jews are patriotic and serve alongside our fellow Americans. One Passover I was privileged to serve on the aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman. At the Seder I led, one quarter of the participants were Jewish, one quarter were in the process of converting to Judaism, one quarter were Christians interested in Judaism and the last quarter were on the Chapel staff, interested in learning more about the people they serve. I was able to support the Judaism of the Jewish service personnel, help those along the path to conversion, and better educate Christians and others about Judaism.

Through most of my civilian career I have worked exclusively with the Jewish community, both in small Jewish non-profits and as the spiritual leader of congregations. Alongside this career has been my service in the Navy Chaplain Corps, working with mostly non-Jews. This has provided a beautiful balance and better understanding between communities. Through this interaction between the civilian and military worlds, my call has evolved to include helping to dispel stereotypes present in the Jewish community, and in progressive/liberal New York City, of more conservative Americans and fundamental Christians. This is an integral part of my service, especially since I have spent my career in the Reserve Component and always have one foot in the military and one foot in the civilian world. I bring a different perspective to both the military community, as a member of a minority religion, and my civilian community, as someone with close relationships with conservative America. And I believe both are part of my partnership with God to honor the dignity of all his creatures. 

Serving as a rabbi in a pluralistic environment is also fundamental to my call. Throughout my life, I have felt most comfortable in a diverse community. I firmly believe that since God is infinite and each human is unique, that there are infinite ways God reveals Godself, and that the multitude of religions are an expression of this. Core to my beliefs is the idea that we are created in the image of God and therefore all have human dignity. This extends to the religions we practice. 

As a Jewish leader serving in a pluralistic environment, I have come to struggle with the concept of the Jews as the Chosen People and therefore favored by God. There are some Jewish denominations who have taken the language of chosen completely out of their prayers and theology. I have never been comfortable with this as I believe that we are to wrestle with parts of Judaism that are uncomfortable to us instead of getting rid of them. While, as mentioned above, I see the different religions as all emanating from God, Judaism seems right to me. Therefore, on some level I connect to the idea of “Chosenness”. Interacting and working closely with chaplains of other faith backgrounds who believe about their faith what I believe about mine has opened me up to greater respect and understanding of other religions.

People, both military and civilians, ask why there are so few rabbis serving in the military. I believe the greatest reason is that a Jewish chaplain’s main congregation is not Jewish. The bulk of a Jewish chaplain’s responsibility will be in counseling and facilitating for non-Jews, whereas most people become rabbis to serve almost exclusively the Jewish community. The rabbis who join the military see pluralism and interfaith relationships as an essential part of their rabbinate. If one’s greatest motivation in becoming a chaplain is to be a rabbi for the Jews in the military than there is a good chance that the military is not the right place. The rabbi whose calling includes serving Jews in the military, and engaging in a highly diverse effort to take care of the religious and spiritual needs of those who serve this country and to be counted among them will be a great asset to the Chaplain Corps and to the Jewish people.