New Directions in the Rabbinate University and Military Chaplains - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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New Directions in the Rabbinate University and Military Chaplains

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While training rabbis for Reform congregations remains one of the primary missions of HUC-JIR, the needs of the Reform Movement and Klal Yisrael require spiritual leaders who can bring Jewish learning and counsel to individuals outside of the congregational fold, even in remote corners of the world. Rabbis have gained increasing recognition for their work as chaplains in universities, the military, hospitals, homes for the aged, and prisons. In a series of articles, The Chronicle will highlight alumni who are Jewish spiritual pioneers in the growing field of chaplaincy.

In 1996, after 100 years of a Christian chaplaincy, Stanford University appointed its first Jewish University Chaplain. Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann (N '82), a veteran Hillel rabbi, joined an Episcopalian and a Protestant as one of three new "Associate Deans for Religious Life." Her duties include counseling students from all religious backgrounds and facilitating campus-wide discussions of ethical issues.

"Whereas my previous Hillel work was oriented toward building Jewish community, my primary responsibility at Stanford is to the whole community," Rabbi Karlin-Neumann explained. "I understand this holy work not as abandoning Judaism, but as incorporating the language of my tradition and the Jewish commitment to study into a larger conversation." She is both a ceremonial chaplain and Stanford's first official Jewish voice.

Stanford's multifaith chaplaincy team represents a new administrative approach to religious life on American campuses. On the one hand, students profess increasing openness to exploring their own spirituality and learning about other faiths - both in and out of the classroom. On the other hand, administrations strive to maintain a pluralistic, multicultural, liberal atmosphere on campus - a place where all faiths feel comfortable in their identities. Faced with these mandates, universities and colleges are appointing more non-Christian clergy as chaplains, and transforming the old-style chaplains into "deans of religious life."

Down the California coast, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Rabbi Susan Laemmle (NY '87) reflects on her second year in the newly-created position of "Dean of Religious Life." "It was a very hard decision to take this job," Laemmle admitted. Laemmle had enjoyed an "incredibly visible and symbolic Jewish role" as head of the USC Hillel since 1992. "But I was offered the possibility of participating in a historic moment." Rabbi Laemmle is the sole chaplain at USC, which was founded by Methodists in 1880. "I think it's amazing for people to see a Jew, a rabbi, in that role. It says that Jews are in the mainstream, and that Jews can represent the entire community in prayer. It says Judaism is a world religion."

When she took the job, Laemmle decided to be called "Rabbi," rather than by the neutral, secular title of "Dean" or "Doctor" (she holds a Ph.D. in English literature). "I want people to know I am an ordained clergy person; I want people to always be aware that they are dealing with a Jew. I feel that this is very significant symbolically." When Laemmle wears her kipah around campus, "people are always being reminded that they are dealing with someone who is a religious figure and Jewish."

Sometimes Laemmle struggles with what she calls her "traditional" chaplain duties: giving benedictions at ceremonies, dedications, and memorial services. Unable to draw directly from Jewish sources, she must create a spiritual message that is both inclusive and relevant in an interfaith setting. Reconciling her Jewish loyalties with professional obligations leads to a creative tension. "For example, I can't use the Kaddish at a memorial, but I can and do use the 23rd Psalm, and use the gender-sensitive translation from the rabbi's manual and Gates of the House." She also found a translation of the "V'ahavta" that worked very well for her first commencement ceremony.

But Laemmle has always been interested in the challenges of religion and multiculturalism. During her USC Hillel days, she created two new campus organizations: Arabs, Muslims, and Jews in Dialogue (AMJID), and a dialogue group for Jews and African Americans. In her new role, Laemmle continues to facilitate spiritual growth for all kinds of students. "Jews should be Jews, Muslims should be Muslims," Laemmle says. "Christians should be Christians. I encourage all people to develop their spiritual lives in a way that they can relate them to culture and family. For those who aren't connected, I would encourage them to talk to different people, to take courses on religion, and to read. It is important to have religious moorings, and to have religious commitment."

Rabbi-Major Ben Romer (C '79) builds this religious commitment, cultural understanding, and spirituality in a different atmosphere. He is both a military chaplain and the Jewish leader at one of the toughest universities in the country: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. On his uniform's lapel, he wears the Army's official Jewish insignia: blue tablets of the law, outlined in silver and crowned with a tiny Magen David.

"This is a legitimate form of the rabbinate," Romer maintains. "I'm a military rabbi. I'm a true or l'goyim (light unto the nations). I'm a representative of Judaism to the military. It's a critically important role. They don't see many Jews, but when the rabbi shows up, he or she represents Judaism. We are models for the world - I teach by what I do. Plus there's the fact that Jews in the military deserve rabbis."

On Friday nights, Romer leads Shabbat services at the Jewish chapel, perched on a rocky outcrop above the campus greens. The congregation, numbering between 60 and 120, offers a spiritual haven for Jewish cadets. Romer has made the chapel a "free zone" where rank is put aside and everyone goes by his or her first name.

Like Jewish chaplains at other universities, Romer spends time in one-on-one counseling, hospital visits, and interfaith events. As chaplain of the 1st Regiment, he is the spiritual guide for cadets of all faiths. Romer also teaches Hebrew in the foreign language department and coordinates the Muslim and Buddhist religious programs. "Constitutionally I am first a chaplain, second a rabbi. I am here to provide for everyone's spiritual needs, and also serve the Jewish cadets."

One of the busiest times for Romer comes every summer during "Beast Barracks," when the entering plebe class undergoes physically grueling basic training. "That's a tough time," Romer says. "We have kids of every religious background up in the chapel on Fridays. The food is good, it's safe, there's no rank and you're human again."

After service in the Panama conflict, 1991 Gulf War, and four years at the U.S. Army Command headquarters for Europe in Heidelberg, Germany, Romer was appointed "Jewish cadet chaplain" at West Point. He enjoys working with cadets and is proud of Jewish cadets who choose to serve their country. Like young Israelis who serve in the Israeli armed forces, some cadets understand this service to be a Jewish duty, as well as an act of American patriotism. A recent West Point graduate once told Romer "I'm a Jew in the military, serving in the army, so you can be free to be American Jews in your synagogues." Rabbi-Major Romer claims: "I could not put it better."

These chaplains serve as role models, educators, and religious leaders to students at a pivotal time in the students' lives. For the non-Jewish students, the chaplains offer spiritual guidance, as well as an introduction to Judaism. Moreover, they build or strengthen the Jewish identity of the Jewish students, providing a positive Jewish experience which can last forever.