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Gathering seeks support for Jews in the military
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Gathering seeks support for Jews in the military

JCC event raises funds for rabbi chaplains, battlefield Torah scroll

Rear Admiral Rabbi Harold Robinson describes Jewish life in the military at the Torahs for Our Troops event at the JCC in Scotch Plains.
Rear Admiral Rabbi Harold Robinson describes Jewish life in the military at the Torahs for Our Troops event at the JCC in Scotch Plains.

Their son, First Lt. Aaron Raymar, is serving in Iraq, so Ronnie Liebowitz and Robert Raymar of Watchung know just how isolated he sometimes feels as a Jew.

That’s one reason they were excited to come to the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains on June 2, to help support an effort to spread a little Yiddishkeit among Jewish military personnel serving overseas.

The event was organized by the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a service of the JCC Association, to raise funds and awareness for its Torahs for Our Troops program. Organizers are creating portable “battlefield” Torah scrolls as well as trying to increase the number of rabbis serving Jewish personnel.

Lt. Raymar’s parents came with his girlfriend, Abby Brunner; his aunt and uncle, Elaine and John Marjoretta; and family friend Virginia Olive to express their solidarity.

They joined about 60 other people at the event, including a contingent of students from the local B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. JCC executive director Barak Hermann urged them to “be the storytellers” and pass on what they learned at the event about Jewish life in the military.

For a donation of $30, participants were able to work with sofer, or religious scribe, Zerach Greenfield to help him write one or more letters in the small-scale scroll.

Dozens of people lined up to do just that, laying their hands over his, one at a time. He said a blessing with them, dipped his quill in the prescribed ink, and brought it to the parchment.

Also taking part was Warrant Officer 2nd Class Adam Sternglass, home from Afghanistan on medical leave. The Elizabeth father of three, smartly turned out in his desert camouflage uniform, wholeheartedly endorsed the idea of expanding the Jewish chaplaincy presence.

Sternglass, who is a graduate of the Jewish Educational Center and has two of his children enrolled there, talked of how often he has been the only Jew in a company, and the sense of humor needed to deal with that isolation.

Rear Admiral Rabbi Harold Robinson USN (Ret.), the director of the chaplains’ council, was the keynote speaker. He said that these days, if you talk about Jews in the military, people respond with surprise. That wasn’t the case 40 years ago, he said, when there was a draft and people still had a memory of World War II, when everyone had had a brother, father, uncle, or son in the service.

“There were more than 300 rabbis who served for the duration of that war,” he said.

The rabbi, clean-shaven and trim in his white naval uniform, said that there are about 10,000 Jews in the United States military — about 1 percent of the total — and there are only 24 rabbis on active duty. They are stationed, for the most part, at major military bases. The servicemen might be provided with kosher food and even things like shelf-stable cheesecake, but they often don’t have a Torah scroll or other ritual objects, or anyone capable of leading a service.

Robinson described the death earlier this year of a Jewish Navy pilot, Lt. Miroslav “Steve” Zilberman of Columbus, Ohio, whose aircraft was hit by enemy fire as he returned from a mission over Afghanistan. He kept it aloft long enough for his crew to parachute to safety, by which time it was too late for him to escape.

Zilberman had been at a Passover seder the day before, but without a rabbi present.

“Think of the comfort his family might have had,” said Robinson, “if they knew that he had been able to say the prayers.”

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