A Priest and a Rabbi Walk onto an Aircraft Carrier: A Call to Serve God and Country

As the Jewish world continues to change more rapidly and radically than rabbis and Jewish professionals can wrap their heads around, many leaders have to re-evaluate what their rabbinate will look like. If you’re dreaming for that big city congregational pulpit position, then you might be dreaming for a while. Today’s Jewish community, much like most other religious communities, has become more diverse and needs very different leadership than our parent’s generation demanded.

One alternative way many religious leaders have answered the call to serve God is by serving country. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with a Reconstructionist rabbi and a Catholic Augustinian priest, both who are reserve chaplains in the United States Navy. Each chaplain reflected on their careers with a fondness and deep appreciation for having answered not only the call to serve God and country but many denominations outside of their respective Jewish and Catholic faiths.

Father Andruzzi* said that he enjoyed the interfaith component of his ministry. His Sunday sermons were not only a pleasant distraction from the mundane rigors of Navy life, but his work in spreading the message of God was appreciated by the officers he served under and the sailors and naval personnel that benefited from his guidance.  “Sometimes morale can be low, especially on long assignments. I would be helicoptered in like the Lone Ranger for a few days at a time and check in with all the crew. They were so happy to see my smile and optimism. I knew I made a difference even if it was for but a moment.” After one’s deployment and service have finished, he is still occasionally called on to perform life cycle sacraments like baptisms and weddings for ex-service men and women. The relationships he helps foster last for years, long after the uniforms are hung up.

How do Navy chaplains make meaningful connections with servicemen and women of many faiths while still honoring their obligation to their own faith? The answer is cooperation without compromise. Chaplains must offer a big net or large tent approach towards ministry; religious services should be as trans-denominational as possible, making efforts to strike a common-theme WITHOUT compromising the integrity and values of the chaplain’s own faith. Outside of the interfaith chapel, the high pressure and seemingly overwhelming challenges of long term deployments knows no denominational divide; depression, separation anxiety, post dramatic stress, and substance abuse affect all servicemen and women equally across all faiths. Although a priest’s white collar can be replaced with a rabbi’s yarmulke, when it comes to multi-faith work, there is no substitution for good pastoral care for the brave men and women who defend the United States on the High Seas.

Rabbi Cohen* noted that while Jews represent the military in healthy numbers, the dearth of rabbis creates a high demand for Jewish chaplains. Since the Navy’s ranks are well represented by Catholics, Baptists, and Evangelical Christians, a Navy rabbi must be prepared to tend to a large flock, supported by a multi-faith approach to God and spirituality. Today’s navy is more professional and sensitive to its personnel; Rabbi Cohen was quick to mention that, “we have come a long way. Homosexuality has been de-stigmatized and gender equality, albeit far from achieved, has made major gains in the last few decades.” Once a rarity, female chaplains are well represented in our armed forces. Moreover, gone are the days when chaplains would look to convert Jews to their Christian denomination. We see a smarter, more respectful Navy where interfaith and multi-faith understanding and appreciation are not only good policies but create for a better working environment.

*Both Fr. Andruzzi and Rabbi Cohen’s names have been changed to maintain confidentiality and anonymity.                                                    


Photo Citation: PH1 Castiglia. USS Saratoga (CVA-60). 1957. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the Collections of the Naval Historical Center, Washington,  DC. http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/h97000/h97674.jpg


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