Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and cantorial students Jay O'Brien and Leah Shafritz were special guests at the annual Prayer Breakfast at the Air National Guard Base at Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, NY, on April 1, 2016. They were invited by Rabbi Lawrence G. Freedman ’92, Chaplain/Major on the Base, and participated in the program with Brigadier General Timothy LaBarge, Commander Air Wing, New York Air National Guard; Chaplain Lt. Colonel Robert Tilli, Wing Chaplain; and Chaplain Major Freedman. The event was attended by 170 airmen and women as well as by twenty congregants from Rabbi Freedman’s congregation, Temple Beth Jacob in Newburgh, NY. Rabbi Panken, a certified commercial pilot, also had the opportunity to fly the C-17 simulator. They are posed in this photo in front of a flag that was hung on 9/11.
Rabbi Freedman reports:
The Air Force needs its people to function at a high level. Therefore, they are concerned with what are called the four pillars of airman fitness: mental, spiritual, social, and physical. This was the 16th annual Prayer Breakfast, held for those who wish to attend. It’s a morning focused on thinking about and being inspired by the role of prayer and spirituality in our lives. It helps people to find ways to connect with something larger than themselves. Even though the event begins at 7:00 am, there were quite a few comments from folks who appreciated starting their day thinking about spiritual things, thinking about the big picture before they plopped themselves down to emails and to-do lists.
Jewish chaplaincy in the military is a very interesting and rewarding experience. I have 11 Jews on my base of 1200 and about half of those join me on the Sunday of our monthly drill weekend for a study breakfast (when Catholic and Protestant services are going on). For some of these troops, it is the most Jewish content they’ve had in some time so there is an aspect of keruv (outreach) to the work. The rest of the time, I’m doing pastoral work with anyone who walks through the doors. It is very humbling to see that folks from all faiths trust me enough to share their troubles. I also do unit visitations to workplaces around the base where I’m seen not as a rabbi but as a chaplain who is there to support them -- although, truth be told, there are a lot of Christians who get a kick out of saying, “that’s my rabbi”. The non-commissioned officers do call me when they have a troubled airman and don’t know how to proceed and they are quite grateful for the resource. And, I once had a very short deployment to Kuwait where I ran 4 seders including two in remote areas for 4 people at a time. Those were the most meaningful to the Jews who were feeling very lonely at that time knowing they wouldn’t be sitting down to a seder.
All this is done as part of the New York Air National Guard which meets one weekend a month. It can’t even be compared to the work of full time active duty chaplains and we have a few HUC-JIR rabbis and one cantor among them.
For graduating rabbis and cantors, there are many options to being a military chaplain other than active duty. People can do it for three years, treating it like a first pulpit. They can be a reservist like me and keep a more typical full-time job, and there is even a program to get to know the chaplaincy while still a student.