Support for Jewish Military Chaplains and Jewish Military Personnel and their Families

Resolution Adopted by the CCAR


Adopted by the 117th Annual Convention

of the Central Conference of American Rabbis

San Diego, CA

June, 2006


Approximately 1,500,000 men and women are serving in the United States military today. Military chaplains provide much-needed pastoral care to these service members, particularly to those who have experienced or face the traumas of combat. Unfortunately, Jewish military personnel do not always have ready access to Jewish pastoral services; there are currently only 29 active-duty Jewish chaplains in the armed services, most of them Orthodox. Shabbat and holiday observances on military bases are often conducted by lay leaders rather than by trained chaplains.

This chaplain shortage affects many aspects of life for Jewish military personnel and their families. Jewish servicemen and women, who make up only a small percentage of the American military force, can be acutely aware of their minority status. As a rabbi and active duty chaplain stationed at the National Naval Medical Center near Washington, DC, explained, “Military, unlike civilian society, is a pretty religious place. Most of my chaplain colleagues are quite respectful–and try to pray in a pluralistic way, but the language of the ship is in a Christian tone, and so the Jews can feel a little isolated in trying to maintain a faith that is a minority faith.” [1]

In 1950 the Union for Reform Judaism adopted a resolution at its 41st General Assembly noting that the Reform Movement was to provide one-third of the military chaplaincy corps and outlining a process to allow the necessary leaves of absence and provide these chaplains with job security upon their return from duty. Since that time, the shortage of trained Jewish military chaplains has become increasingly more acute, with the elimination of the draft and as current chaplains age and fewer rabbis choose to join the military after ordination. The decline in numbers of Jewish chaplains is particularly acute among non-Orthodox Jewish clergy. These declines pose a significant challenge for Jewish military personnel, particularly those stationed overseas. Wherever they serve, Jewish military personnel, and particularly those who adhere to liberal Judaism, often find their spiritual needs unmet.

Military regulations allow exceptions for volunteers, rather than chaplains, to offer pastoral services when necessary. Clergy who want to serve military personnel but who are ineligible for military service can apply for waivers in order to provide pastoral care. This makes it possible for both civilian clergy and lay leaders to provide necessary support to Jewish military personnel where trained Jewish military chaplains are unavailable. [2]

Some Rabbis and the communities they serve have done a remarkable job of trying to fill this void by providing support to Jewish military personnel and their families. Non-military Rabbis are supplying clergy for pastoral care and religious services on military bases in their region, and they are extending invitations to military personnel and their families to become part of congregational life. Our members support parents whose children are in the military and for patients in military hospitals. Others are offering support to those serving overseas through care packages and correspondence.

Yet more can be done to serve this vulnerable and often isolated Jewish population. Too often Jewish military personnel and their families are invisible to our congregations and to their colleagues. Since the Vietnam era, in a time when military service was understandably, if not always justifiably, vilified, military chaplaincy has not been widely viewed as a meaningful rabbinate. CCAR representatives to the national coordinating body of Jewish military chaplains, through the JWB of JCCA, have not been part of the CCAR leadership.

Our concern for the religious needs of Jewish members of the U.S. Armed Forces extends to those who are gay or lesbian. Our Reform Movement has staunchly opposed discrimination against gays and lesbians, and we have never supported the U.S. Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Indeed, excluding chaplains who may be gay or lesbian may violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as it restricts faith groups such as ours, which openly ordain gay and lesbian clergy, from commissioning chaplains from among the full ranks of their clergy.

Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). As Reform Jews we must connect with the Jewish servicemen and women and their families for we are their community, just as they are ours. “All Jews are responsible for one another” (Babylonian Talmud, Sh’vuot 39a).

THEREFORE, the Central Conference of American Rabbis resolves to:

1. Seek to establish a Joint Commission, together with HUC-JIR, ACC and URJ, to:

  • Enhance recognition of CCAR and ACC members who serve as military chaplains, as we continue to take pride in the great service of these colleagues.

  • Look for new ways for all CCAR and ACC members and for the CCAR, ACC, and URJ themselves, together with local congregations, to support Rabbis and Cantors who serve as military chaplains, at home or abroad, in active duty or reserve service.

  • Encourage CCAR and ACC members and future members to learn about and consider service in the military chaplaincy, in active duty or reserve service;

  • Increase service in the military chaplains by newly ordained Rabbis and Cantors.

  • Work together with the leaders of Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbinical and cantorial organizations and their seminaries to establish joint efforts to increase the number of liberal Jewish military chaplains, while continuing to work with our Orthodox colleagues on this shared sacred endeavor.

  • Encourage CCAR and ACC members to seek waivers if necessary in order to serve Jewish military personnel and provide volunteer services to military personnel in their communities.

  • Facilitate ways for CCAR and ACC members, HUC-JIR students, with the support of the congregations and communities they serve, to work with base chaplains to arrange for civilian clergy and lay volunteers to conduct Shabbat and holiday services, teach Torah and provide spiritual counseling on bases and ships and in hospitals.

  • Sensitize CCAR and ACC members and congregations to the importance of reaching out to Jewish service members and their families in their local communities, to make them full participants in the life of the congregation.

  • Encourage CCAR and ACC members, HUC-JIR students and congregational volunteers to interact with nearby military hospital chaplains, in order to proactively serve Jewish men and women admitted to military hospitals and their families.

    2. Raise the profile of military chaplaincy governance within our Conference by assuring that, beginning no later than 2007, a CCAR representative on the JWB Chaplains Council be a CCAR leader, as requested by JCCA.

    3. Urge the Department of Defense and the Chaplain Corps to consider waiving age requirements whenever appropriate for religious leaders of all faiths who seek to serve as chaplains at home or abroad.

    4. Continue to advocate for the end of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the U.S. Armed Forces, including but not limited to gay and lesbian Rabbis and Cantors who may serve as chaplains.

    [1] “Military Services Hit Hard by Chaplain Shortage,” Nathanial Popper, The Forward, June 24, 2005.

    [2] For example, army regulations state, .Distinctive faith group leaders may provide ministry on an exception to policy basis when military chaplains are not available to meet the faith group coverage requirements of soldiers and their families..

    *This proposed resolution is based on a similar Resolution, proposed by Temple Emanuel, Beaumont, Texas, and approved at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention in Houston, November, 2005.