England’s Ministry of Defense to Appoint First Full-Time Jewish Chaplain

by Phyllis Zimbler Miller

(Jewish Chronicle photo of British Colonel Martin Newman)

Syndicated from the February 18th post on MrsLieutenant.blogspot.com.

This past weekend I spoke at a conference about my project Operation Support Jews in the Military. And I met two young men from London who shared with me a February 12th newspaper article from the U.K.’s The Jewish Chronicle – “Wanted: a chaplain for the armed forces” by Marcus Dysch.

The Ministry of Defence [MoD] is to appoint its first full-time Jewish chaplain to the armed forces.

He will be expected to advise on religious issues, organise services for Jewish personnel and arrange kosher rations.

Jewish servicemen and women are the last to receive a dedicated chaplain, with Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh padres already employed by the MoD.

Jonathan Woodhouse, MoD deputy chaplain-general, said the appointment was “essential”.

The number of Jewish personnel in the armed forces is thought to be in the low hundreds, but includes troops now serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Martin Newman, of the Jewish Committee for HM [Her Majesty's] Forces, believes the number of troops is “small but significant”, and growing.

Now as an American Jew, here’s the part of the article that I found most interesting, and this also perhaps explains why the U.K. already had Buddhist and Sikh chaplains and no Jewish chaplain.

“Because the [forces] community has become more active in recent years, people are coming out of the woodwork and changing their records to show they are Jewish,” he [Newman} said.

“If someone in the forces says they are Jewish then we need to be in a position to give them the best possible support we can.”

Lynette Nusbacher, senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, said: “For a very long time service personnel hid the fact they were Jewish. They are a bit less likely to do that now the MoD’s commitment to diversity has been demonstrated.

“For many years members of the services would take leave for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur and go back to their family. So rather than be affiliated with a Jewish community in the armed forces, they were affiliated with their family synagogue.”

But with personnel now regularly serving in operational theatres of war around the world, Dr. Nusbacher said, demands had changed.

“It has become much more intense, so ordinary members of the forces need more assistance. We need chaplains who can go to those theatres, make sure kosher rations are available and do whatever is necessary. The idea that there has not been a full-time chaplain is pathetic.”

Here in the U.S., American Jews believe that there is more anti-Semitism in England than in the U.S. Thus I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that, until recently, Jewish military personnel in the U.K. hid their religious affiliation.

And in connection with this U.K. newspaper article, I’d like to share with you a February 6-12th article I just received from my parents in the mail – “Rabbi Abraham on the occasion of his 200th birthday, a look at Lincoln and the Jews” by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood in the Chicago Jewish News. Here’s the section circled by my parents:

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Congress passed legislation allowing the Union to raise a voluntary army. The same bill allowed for the provision of military chaplains, who by law could only be bona fide Christian ministers.

But with many Jews serving in the army, a delegation of Jewish soldiers’ families soon appealed to Lincoln to allow rabbis to serve as chaplains to provide appropriate religious services for Jewish soldiers.

“The debate about the chaplains went on for months,” [historian Gary] Zola says. “The issue distressed American Jewry greatly. They had people in service; they were appalled.” Eventually, the law was changed and rabbis were allowed to serve as chaplains.

Two different English-speaking countries. Two different responses. And today there’s a shortage of Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military, which is the impetus for my new site www.OperationSupportJewsintheMilitary.com.

Check out this site now, and you can read the entire Jewish Chronicle article and the entire Chicago Jewish News article.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Colonel Martin Newman DL February 25, 2009 at 4:27 am

I’m glad to see that our news is reaching over the Pond. Unfortunately the Jewish Chronicle article was factually incorrect and misleading. We’ve had commissioned Jewish Chaplains since 1892, the longest serving other than Anglican.

American veterans will know that there were a large number of full time British Jewish chaplains serving in the Army and RAF during both world wars and until the end of conscription. We then relied on reserve chaplains because of the small size of the community.

For the past 15 years this job has been done by a retired Royal Airforce Chaplain as a volunteer, at his own request and funded by the endorsing authority. We were offered a full time replacement by the Ministry of Defence but the offer was turned down by our Chief Rabbi’s office, I believe, without consultation with the serving personnel. We, as the endorsing authority, decided it was time to regularise the situation and MoD retained the funding and has now released this to appoint a new fulltime padre. We have also just commissioned a Territorial Army (same as National Guard) Rabbi.

While our numbers are in the low hundreds our military Jewish community is vibrant, very active and steadily growing.

Being relatively small (remember our armed forces are much smaller than those of the USA) it’s easier for us to keep in touch on a regular basis. Irrespective of rank (and we have a disproportionate number of senior officers) we treat the group as an extended family who are proud of their British and Jewish identities.

Any inference that we do not identify with our Jewishness or do not receive the support of the MoD or the single services is totally incorrect. And if you don’t believe me you just have to as my American wife – now a real British colonel’s lady!!

Many did not identify as Jewish on joining because there was always a stigma among the Jewish community that the military was not a job for a yiddisher boy! I’ve even experienced this in the USA – when my then to be wife told her mother that she was marrying a reserve colonel in the British Army the response was ‘I thought you said he was Jewish!’ But it’s not just the Jewish community ~ soldiers here are heralded during war and emergencies and looked down on when they are perceived to have no role to play. It’s nothing new – Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about it!

We are in the middle of a campaign to raise awareness among the Jewish community and I’m pleased to say it’s starting to work.

Please don’t worry about Jews in Her Majesty’s Forces. We’re thriving. And in 35 years in uniform I’ve never come across a single case of anti-semitsm in the forces. Believe me it’s no worse here than in the USA – it’s just that our media is more internationally read. It has increased a bit during the present middle-east conflict but it has done everywhere.

Colonel Martin Newman DL
Vice Chairman – Jewish Committee for HM Forces

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