Rabbi is serving God and the Navy


BETHESDA -- The sun will set today, and Daniella Kolodny will lead the congregation in prayer during her second Rosh Hashana as a rabbi.

But from where she stands, the sun will be setting over the Sea of Japan, and her congregation will consist of service members gathered at the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka.

A lieutenant stationed at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Kolodny is one of seven Jewish chaplains in the Navy. Most of them have fanned out around the globe to join fellow Jews in uniform for the High Holy Days - the Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe, that form the holiest period of the Hebrew calendar.

From Rosh Hashana, the start of the new year that begins at sunset today, through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that begins at sunset Oct. 12, the faithful will reflect on repentance in preparation for the Jewish year 5766.

"It can be lonely for any Jew in the military," said Rabbi Irving Elson, a chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy, who recently returned from Iraq.

"Judaism is very much a family-based religion," he said. "Just imagine being far away from home, either in a foreign land or in a combat area. It's a difficult time, and look how wonderful it is to be able to say, 'I'm here in the middle of the ocean, or in Japan, or in Iraq or Afghanistan, and I have a rabbi that's coming and bringing a little bit of home.'"

Kolodny, who joined the Navy after her ordination last year, spent Passover this year aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

"I got into the rabbinate because I wanted to serve Jews, and I wanted to provide community, and I wanted to provide learning," she said at the medical center last month before leaving for Japan.

"The wonderful thing about this particular work is being able to bring those ideas to people who really are starving," she said. "They really, really want to be part of the Jewish community, and because of their geographic location, it's really a challenge."

Career path

Born in Jerusalem but raised in Columbia - she graduated from Wilde Lake High School - Kolodny never imagined that she would join the military. But it also took her some time to recognize her calling to the rabbinate.

She had grown up at Columbia Jewish Congregation, which was then unaffiliated, celebrated the holidays with her family and enjoyed a strong sense of Jewish identity. But she enrolled at Boston University without a clear idea of what she wanted to do after graduation.

After completing a degree in international relations, she worked for an advocacy group for Ethiopian Jews in Washington, studied the Torah at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, earned master's degrees in public administration and Jewish communally service at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, and worked as an educator at a synagogue on Long Island.

Finally, she heeded the advice of a rabbi friend in 1997 and enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

It was there that she met Elson, then working to recruit chaplains to the Navy. Classmates were intrigued, but Kolodny dismissed the idea: "How many Jewish women do you know that go into military service?"

But then she mentioned the recruiter's visit to her brother-in-law, a former surface warfare officer. He told her that throughout his time in the Navy, he never saw a rabbi in uniform.

"I was kind of being silly, and he got all serious on me," she said. "He sort of pulled at my heartstrings."

She attended a course during the summer of 2000 that was intended to introduce clergy and seminarians to the Navy - and was impressed.

"I didn't realize how thoughtful, dedicated, how most people in the service were people of real integrity," she said. "There's plenty of politics, but I've found by and large that most of the people are here to work, they're here to do a good job and to really serve their country and serve their people."

On subsequent breaks from the seminary, Kolodny worked at the Naval Academy, the National Naval Medical Center and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Military asset

From the beginning, Elson said, it was obvious that Kolodny would be an asset to the Navy.

"The Hebrew word is hashkafa, which is perspective," he said. "Perspective on Judaism and how people use their Judaism to improve their lives, and Rabbi Kolodny has just hit it on the head."

Kolodny was ordained in spring 2004 and joined the Navy last fall.

Elson said the seven Jewish chaplains on active duty in the Navy are "absolutely not adequate" to serve the number of Jews in uniform. He calls recruiting chaplains the toughest assignment he's had.

"There's a shortage of rabbis to begin with, and, unfortunately, Jews in the military are not at the top of the American Jewish agenda these days or any days. The hardest thing is just to create this awareness that, hey, there are Jews that are serving honorably in the military, and they need rabbis."

The Army has 12 active-duty Jewish chaplains, according to Rabbi David Lapp, director of the New York-based Jewish Welfare Board, which endorses rabbis for the military. The Air Force has 11.

While the Department of Defense does not publish a breakdown of service members by faith, Lapp, who was an Army chaplain for 25 years, estimates that Jews make up about 1 percent of the military.

He says that those visited by a rabbi for Rosh Hashana should get a "spiritual high."

"It has to do with the blowing of the shofar, of the ram's horn," he said. "It's an awakening call: 'Hey, get up, you've slept the whole year. Get yourself on your feet and do something.' It's something that puts people on fire and gives them that light that they need to continue on.

"It motivates them, it gives them a feeling of, 'Hey, I still belong; I'm not isolated, I'm not separated, I still have that communion between myself and God.'"

When not traveling, Kolodny works at the medical center, where she visits with patients - some of them injured soldiers returning from Afghanistan or Iraq - and counsels service members, family and staff. In recent weeks, she said, she has helped give a Hebrew name to one family's baby - and sat with another family after they learned the mother's fetus had died.

"The job of every clergy person is to be on a journey with their people," she said. "Sometimes the journey is just the day-to-day kind of stuff. If I were a rabbi in a synagogue, I'd be teaching, I'd be leading services, I'd do some counseling. But this is being with people at critical times in their lives."

'Open to others'

Like other military chaplains, Kolodny ministers to people of all faiths. Her supervisor, Navy Capt. Nathan Milton, describes a recent incident in which a Christian was praying to Jesus in her presence. She told him he should feel free to continue.

"She's very respectful of other people," said Milton, who is a Southern Baptist. "She's steeped in her own tradition, but at the same time she's open to others."

A year into her service, Kolodny calls the work she never imagined for herself "interesting and compelling."

"I'm not a flag-waver for the homeland," she said. "As a Jew, I am idealistic about what America can do and what America stands for.

"Jews and all people of faith have found the United States to be particularly welcoming to difference, to people of faith, to being able to worship in the way that's appropriate to your belief system. And Jews have found a real home in America.

"Those are the blessings that I'm happy to be able to serve."


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