Not many bar mitzva boys know what they want to do with their lives. And among the list of glamorous possibilities—astronaut, professional basketball star, race-car driver—the rabbinate probably does not make the top 10. As for being a Jewish military chaplain, few 13-year-olds are probably even aware of the vocation.
But Irving Elson, a 50-year-old Conservative rabbi and a captain in the Navy Chaplains Corps, has always been a little different.
“Serving was a natural thing for me,” says the tall, gregarious and usually smiling Elson, whose father was a marine during the Korean War. “My dad told me that I could do whatever I wanted in life, but that I had to serve first. That was the expectation. So when I decided to become a rabbi, around age 13, I started looking into chaplaincy as a way to do both.”
As the highest-ranking jewish chaplain in the Navy and Marine Corps, Elson’s sphere of influence extends far beyond individual servicemen.
“Rabbi Elson is a senior officer who influences the entire [military] system,” says Rabbi Harold Robinson, director of the Jewish Chaplains Council and a retired rear admiral. “He is well-known and respected by senior military leadership because they know the quality of the source.” Indeed, Elson was called to the White House several times during one of his previous tours at the Naval Academy and was the only military rabbi to meet former President George W. Bush at one of those meetings.
The ranks of Jewish chaplains have thinned out since the abolition of the draft in 1973, and there are now 30 active-duty chaplains and 30 reserve chaplains across all of the military services—about one-third of the Jewish chaplains corps population of the past. This crisis in Jewish chaplaincy means that fewer Jewish troops receive spiritually oriented resources, and fewer non-Jewish chaplains become educated about and sensitized to Jewish needs. According to rough Defense Department estimates, there are currently 4,000 Jews in all of the services combined.
Elson, who now serves as force chaplain, Naval Air Forces, Pacific Fleet in San Diego, where he lives with his family, believes that certain misconceptions about both the military and the rabbinate may explain the low numbers. For him, though, being a rabbi in the military is “teaching oriented, service oriented, people oriented. It’s what I was destined to do.”
Elson was born in Mexico City—his father is an American Jew from Detroit and his mother is a Mexican Jew—and grew up attending Congregation Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue. In 1978, he left Mexico to attend Yeshiva University in New York.
Undergraduate studies were so fulfilling that he immediately continued with a rabbinical degree at the Jewish Theological Seminary; at the same time, he signed up for military reserve duty. He next volunteered for active duty, and in 1988, just two weeks after ordination, he and his wife, Fran, left for Okinawa, his first duty station.
“I was going to serve for just three years at first,” Elson recalls. “But we had such a good time we kept saying ‘three more years.’” Now, after 23 years of active-duty service in places as varied as Japan; Charleston, South Carolina; Italy; Newport, Rhode Island; upstate New York; two tours at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; and now in San Diego, “I don’t know of life not in the Navy,” he says.
But the character of military service has changed in two decades, especially since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In August 2002, Elson was deployed to Kuwait and eventually Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom as the Marines’ only Jewish chaplain there, leading services under mortar fire and ministering to Jews and non-Jews in combat. In early 2003, Elson’s regiment came under heavy enemy fire in Nasiriyah and was ambushed by units of Iraq’s Republican Guards. During an intense firefight, Robert Page, the chaplain’s assistant assigned to him—essentially a bodyguard, since military chaplains do not carry weapons—covered Elson with his own body and returned fire, saving the rabbi’s life. Page was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps bronze star for his bravery.
The event was “life changing,” observes Elson. He paraphrases Mordecai’s words to Esther to describe his perspective: “‘Maybe it is for this that God put you in that place.’ It was horrible, but the most important result was that when someone comes to talk to me about their combat experience, I can say I know what they are going through, and they know that I know. It’s a powerful pastoral connection.”
Elson has returned to combat zones in the Middle East and posts around the world since then, conducting services and Passover Seders, usually in a tent with a mobile Torah scroll, and overseeing the resources provided to Jewish sailors and marines, among many other duties. Fran and their three children—Jacob, 15, Aliza, 12 and Abigail, 6—are used to the idea of sharing him with the troops.
“I have chosen to be with sailors and marines during holidays instead of my own family,” he admits. “My kids feel a sense of mission, too, because we’ve included them in creating Jewish communities wherever we go, and they have had the great benefit of seeing us, as a family, influence people’s lives.”
Indeed, troops cite the contributions of Elson’s entire family as one of the keys to his lasting impact. Matthew Krauz, a Naval officer currently stationed in Hawaii who met Elson at the Naval Academy, calls him and his family “the unsung heroes of Judaism,” and believes their influence “has made me a better leader, a better officer and a better Jew.” Specifically, he says Elson’s “realistic approach to religion allowed me and many of my peers to easily relate to him and follow his approach to practicing our faith while executing our mission and continuing to develop as young leaders in the Navy.”
But the pressures of serving during wartime test even the most committed military families.
“It can be very hard,” says Fran Elson. “The six months Irv was in Iraq was the most challenging time of our lives, because he was on the battlefield and there was almost no communication. But sailors and marines need a rabbi even more in wartime. They turn to faith during crisis, and wartime is actually when Irv does his best and most meaningful work. He provides the remembrance of home...and he is passionate about what he does. So we have no second thoughts.”
The chaplaincy’s unique role in the military continues to draw Elson in, regardless of the challenges of the historical moment. “The greatest success we have as chaplains is to prove that a spiritually or religiously centered young person makes a better sailor or marine,” he says. One particular benefit of a tenure as lengthy as Elson’s is that he has learned the most effective ways to promote progress. When he first arrived at the Naval Academy, for example, Jewish worship services during “plebe summer” (the period in which new recruits learn Navy ways) were held on Sunday mornings—simply because that had always been the traditional time for worship. It took him most of that year to change the time to Saturday morning, so that Jewish undergraduates could worship during Shabbat.
“It takes a while to learn how to change the institution from within,” he acknowledges. “But the Navy has been very open to hearing about diversity.” Jewish troops have to be equally open to finding compromise in their service. In his counseling—which has included questions about keeping Shabbat, maintaining kashrut and wearing a kippa, three mitzvot that Elson observes—he challenges them to demand of the institution, but also urges them to realize what the institution requires of them. “My role is to facilitate both,” he believes. “We can then create an awareness that there are Jews who serve honorably, and with hard work you can have a meaningful Jewish life in the military.”
Tellingly, Elson calls military troops “my congregation.” But unlike a pulpit rabbi, his congregation is always in transition and often in crisis, so his approach to teaching his flock about Judaism differs from pulpit rabbis. The troops, in turn, have given him new insights about Judaism. “I live with my congregation,” he explains. “I work, eat and sleep with them. What happens to them happens to me. It gives me a chance to see what a vital faith we have. Having such a fluid congregation teaches me how people use Judaism in different ways in different times of their life.”
Elson’s work has positively influenced others as well. During each tour, non-Jewish chaplains with whom he collaborates become better educated about and sensitized to the needs of Jewish troops. “Irv is my go-to guy,” says Lt. Cmdr. Philip King, a Protestant Navy chaplain who has worked with Elson for several years. “Having discussions on war with people of faith, it’s necessary to have the rabbi’s perspective. I’m always looking for the talmudic interpretation of biblical stories, and he provides that. You really want to make resources available for Jewish sailors, too, so it’s important to make that connection for them as soon as they arrive on base.”
Elson’s experience building bridges in the civilian community has also changed the landscape of Jewish worship. Starting in June 2005 as deputy command chaplain at the Naval Academy, he became instrumental in the building and dedication of the Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel. Howard Pinskey, an Annapolis businessman who founded and is president of Friends of the Jewish Chapel (and is a 1962 graduate of the Naval Academy), worked with Elson to raise the $15 million for the building.
“Irv is in the forefront as an officer and a Jew, and people respect that,” Pinskey says. “You can lead troops morally by the force of your personality and ethics, and that’s what he does. Civilians and troops look up to him because he doesn’t choose the easy path and does more than what is required of him. He serves his obligation joyfully.”
For Elson, this service is intimately tied to faith and his personal history, and he views his Navy tenure as paying back a debt to the country. “America has been good to me, my family and the Jewish people,” he says. “We owe it our hard work in return.”
Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher; www.standingbybook.com).