Third-year cantorial student Laynie Zell was commissioned into the United States Navy as a Chaplain Candidate on January 20, 2022. She is the first female cantor to enter into the United States military as a chaplain, and only the second cantor. The commissioning ceremony included Rabbi Irving A. Elson, CAPT, USN (Ret.), Director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, Cantor David Frommer ‘11, the first cantor to serve as a chaplain in the modern U.S. military, HUC-JIR President Andrew Rehfeld, and Rabbi David Adelson, Dean, HUC-JIR/NY.
Zell decided to join the Navy for several reasons. She explains, “I wanted to go where I felt I was most needed. Active duty soldiers don’t get the kind of spiritual care they need more often than not. I saw a void and decided to fill it. My family has a history of Naval service, so it is something I’d considered long before my days at HUC. Becoming a Chaplain gives me a way of honoring that family tradition while playing to my unique strengths as a cantor. Also, I realized halfway through the application process that there were no other cantors in the Navy and only one other in the military at large. It felt like this was the last frontier for cantors (especially female cantors). I want to be sure that door is left open for future cantors—that they know it is a career option.”
Zell’s uncle is a former Lieutenant Commander in the Navy’s Medical Corps, and her grandfather, z”l, was a former Storekeeper 3rd Class. They were a great inspiration to Zell when deciding which branch of the military to join. Rabbi Irv Elson (CAPT USN Ret.) and Cantor David Frommer ‘11 (MAJ US Army) were also instrumental in guiding Zell through the possibilities and motivating her throughout the process.
Zell says, “It is highly recommended that cantorial students take at least one Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) unit during their studies, which I will do next year to prepare for service once I’m ordained, in addition to the spiritual counseling class offered to all cantorial students.”
At the commissioning, President Andrew Rehfed, Ph.D., remarked, “What an honor it is to celebrate the commissioning of soon to be Cantor Laynie Zell as the first female cantorial military chaplain candidate…Laynie, Cantor-to-be Zell, in accepting this commission you are simultaneously accepting the yoke of all three Ketarim — the authority as teacher, as religious leader, and as communal sustainer. For you are choosing to serve, and have been accepted to lead, in our armed forces, whose very job it is to ensure the material conditions necessary for us all to live in safety and without fear. And at this time of increasing popular antisemitism, your role as representative of our people could not be more important. And what noble service you are now entering.” Read Rehfeld’s full remarks here.
Cantor David Frommer ‘11 was the first cantor to serve as a chaplain in the modern U.S. military. “Laynie has stepped forward to serve at a critical hour of need for the tens of thousands of Jews serving in the U.S. Armed Forces,” he says. “Though most Jewish service members come from Reform backgrounds, only seven of the thirty-one Jewish Chaplains on Active Duty are graduates of HUC – the lowest at any point in American history. As the first female cantor to be commissioned for this work, Laynie will not only support these Jews with strength and song, but will also blaze a trail that hopefully inspires the Reform rabbis and cantors we need to follow her.
Rabbi Irving A. Elson, CAPT, USN (Ret.), Director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council (JWB), adds, “JWB Jewish Chaplains Council® is proud and honored to participate in the commissioning ceremony of cantorial student Laynie Zell, marking her entry into the U.S. Navy’s Chaplain Candidate Program. Zell, the first woman and the second cantorial student endorsed for military chaplaincy by JWB, represents the American Jewish community’s best, and we are delighted she is launching her cantorial career as a chaplain candidate, devoted to serving Jewish and other military personnel and their families. We are confident Zell will bring a unique and valuable perspective to the program and to her work, and, following her ordination and training, we look forward to her presence in the ranks of JWB-endorsed military chaplains.”