Purim in Okinawa: A Chaplain Realizes He Almost Missed His Calling

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Rabbi Ze’ev Lowenberg

(Courtesy)

Just like millions of Jews around the world, I am currently immersed in Purim preparations, both spiritual and logistical. I am taking stock of the stock of groggers and hamentaschen, finding charities and organizations for matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor, and organizing a Megillah reading. I am contemplating the ancient story of vulnerability and courage in which a Jewish community saved itself. The Book of Esther has special resonance for me this year. It’s my first at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, the tiny tropical island that’s home to more than 26,000 American service members and their families. I serve as chaplain to the Jewish community, about 50 strong.

Life here is entirely colored by the experience of being at the “tip of the spear” in the Pacific. We sit closer geographically to both China and North Korea than we do to Tokyo, the capital of Japan. Deployments both off island and to the island are numerous and constant. The constant ear-splitting noise of fighter jets reminds us of the freedom we enjoy and the threat that looms across the sea. These aren’t air shows the pilots are training for: It’s the ever-present potential of conflict. When we go through a base-wide exercise, it’s not just for play, it’s for the worst-case scenario that is a constant prick in the back of our mind.

The approach of Purim heightens our sense of the incredible responsibility to be the protectors, not just of ourselves, but of our community and our neighbors. Serving side by side with the Japanese forces, on deployments with allies in the region and from around the world, traveling to different bases in the Indo-Pacific region, each of these moments has caused me to reflect on my opportunity as a rabbi to be the calming presence and to be the vessel into which people are able to pour their deepest worries, their darkest moments, and find light. Mordechai’s act of heroism started with one simple action: listening.

Yet for the 10,000 Jews serving in the U.S. armed forces around the world, there are only 37 chaplains. What’s more, in the Indo-Pacific region, which is increasingly important as the United States contends with China, we have 400 Jewish service members and only two chaplains. I am one, and the other, based in Korea, is scheduled to leave in the next six months. When Jewish military communities don’t have access to a Jewish chaplain, they are vulnerable. Some have suffered from an inadequate supply of ritual foods and objects at holiday times. Others are scared or anxious and seek in-person counsel, not a Zoom session. Until recently, the military Jewish community of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa were conducting Shabbat services in a shipping container after being ejected from the chapel.

Jews like these are in deep need of a Mordechai, someone who will sit, listen, care.

Mordechai’s service became an essential element in saving not just the life of the king, but the lives of so many members of the Jewish communities of Persia. I am so grateful to do this work. Yet even my service as chaplain almost didn’t happen.

Growing up in Baltimore, I knew that Jews had been serving in the military since the founding of our nation, taking part in the battles and wars that defined each generation. I cherished the stories of my grandfathers in World War II, serving both at home and overseas, the stories of my great-uncles in Korea, my dad’s generation and their experiences surrounding Vietnam. I too wanted to serve in the military, wherever that path would lead. Unlike most of my high school friends who chose to go to schools with large Jewish communities, I chose West Virginia University in the hills of Morgantown, where I joined the Air Force ROTC program, completely unaware of the chaplaincy and rabbis who served alongside the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen.

I found Jewish life at Hillel, and at Hillel I found a siddur, a prayer book published by the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council in the World War I era. Now a signature program of the JCC Association of North America, JWB was founded in 1917 to serve Jewish soldiers fighting in that conflict. The book’s black cover had grayed, its white pages yellowed with time, the whole thing one strong breeze from simply turning to dust. There was no saying how it had ended up on the bookshelves there, but it spoke to me, its history and heritage. That book planted a seed, which flowered when I met an actual chaplain in person and it dawned on me that not only could I pursue that same career, but that being a rabbi in the military was exactly what I was being called to do.

It was JWB, for example, who intervened to find the Djibouti Jews an alternative to their shipping container. And it was JWB that “endorsed” me to the Department of Defense after I was ordained in 2020 by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative Movement’s flagship institution. Since 1945, when Americans first took Okinawa during the waning months of World War II, there has been a continued rabbinic presence on the island. I am proud of the lineage I now inherit as the senior active duty rabbi in the region, especially as the eyes of the world turn towards us and the growing threats in the region.

Mordechai understood that to speak is essential, but only if he was able to listen first. I write this article because I want other young people to understand, as I did after finding that prayer book and meeting that chaplain, that this holy work is an option for them, too.

We need more Jewish chaplains to keep creating places of community for Jewish military families in this ever-changing landscape of military life. The Jewish community is better served when families and kids know that this job exists and that we as military rabbis exist, when it’s spoken of in the community not as a job that was once done, but that is currently being done around the world, by Jewish clergy from the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Chabad movements, when kids know all their options. Representation matters — in sports, in politics, in media and in the clergy, and it is my hope that one day kids will grow up knowing that they can be authentically Jewish, that they can serve their country as both military leaders and Jewish community leaders, in the same incredible job that I am so privileged to have today.

Rabbi Ze’ev Lowenberg is a Baltimore native and a chaplain serving the Jewish community at the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.

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