This past week I had a unique opportunity as a Jewish layleader. I’m currently serving as a flight instructor for naval aviators near Pensacola, Florida. I’m extremely happy to (finally) live in a place with an active Jewish community. However, having two synagogues in town usually means that most of what I do as a layleader is refer them to one of the two rabbis. This week turned out rather different though.
It’s a big occasion when student aviators complete their training and earn their wings of gold (even for me). The winging ceremony is a special event, when you make the transition from being a student to an actual military aviator – kind of like the aviation equivalent a bar mitzvah. The chapel on our base has a tradition that complements the actual winging ceremony called the “blessing of the wings”. This is a completely voluntary program, but one that is rather popular among many of the new aviators. While it is billed as a non-denominational ceremony, it is clearly a Christian program that culminates in the Catholic priest sprinkling holy water on the wings that these service members are about to pin on later that day.
I received a call the week prior from the chaplain where he told me about a Jewish ensign who wanted to participate in the ceremony, but wondered if a rabbi could administer a more Jewish blessing. I contacted my rabbi to see if he would be willing to participate. He is a young rabbi, and new to the community so he was more than ecstatic to take part. I worked with the rabbi and gave him some context of the ceremony so he could best prepare for it.
In my experience, many military Jews keep a low profile but tend to come out of the woodwork when you “rattle the bushes”. True to form, once the word got out that a rabbi would be attending the blessing of the wings, a second ensign came forward and said he wanted to participate too. The chaplain was (almost) as excited as I was about this. While the base chaplains are clearly Christian ministers, they always jump at the opportunity to include other faith groups. They wanted to review the ceremony with us to make sure there wouldn’t be any prayers that would be exclusionary or offend the Jewish attendees in any way. It turned out there wasn’t much to be changed, really just inserting a couple of places for us to add in our own prayers.
Everything was set in place. I had hoped to attend, so I had my dress uniform ready, but I was scheduled to fly a sortie in the morning and another one in the afternoon. My big goal was just to make sure the rabbi would be set up for success. If I got to see the ceremony itself, that would be a bonus. Literally, within minutes of my head hitting my pillow on Thursday night I received a call from the rabbi.
Unfortunately, he had just received news of a death in the family and needed to leave town first thing in the morning. Now I had to stand in for him at the ceremony. As I hung up with the rabbi, I reluctantly set my alarm a little earlier so I could squeeze in a little preparation in the morning. I also wanted to try and get a head start on the flight schedule so I could finish in time for the ceremony. I figured I had a 50/50 chance of actually pulling this thing off, but I had to try.
The alarm came early and it was off to the races. A shot of espresso and a bagel later, I was out the door on time. I staged my uniform and headed out for my flight. Thankfully my first student did extremely well, which put me in a cheery mood and allowed for a short debrief. I shoveled some food down and pulled my best impression of superman (minus the phone booth) as I swapped from my flight suit to my full dress blue uniform. Somehow I made it to the chapel with a little time to spare. That was important, because there was some confusion as to the rabbi’s absence. They saw me on the flight schedule and had assumed I wouldn’t be able to make it to the ceremony. After some last minute coordination with the Monsignor, everyone was ready to go. I spoke briefly with the two ensigns to make sure they were OK with a layleader performing the blessing instead of a rabbi and then the show began.
While I’m building this up like some exciting episode of 24, the ceremony itself wasn’t very complicated. When the non-Jews were done with their blessing, they called up the two Jewish ensigns and I read a slightly modified version of the traveler’s prayer and ended with the priestly blessing.
Afterwards, both ensigns came up and thanked me. Their families followed suit and all expressed a great deal of gratitude for allowing their children to participate in the ceremony. They even wanted to take pictures with me! It clearly meant the world to them for me to perform what was essentially a simple (yet extremely meaningful) task.
I stress this point because I’m a perpetual evangelist for others to serve as layleaders. While officers and NCOs are in the best position to do so, it’s really something anyone who has the means to do so, should do. You don’t have to be a rabbi, a yeshiva graduate, or even know how to lead a service. Much of what a layleader does is serve as a point of contact and liaison between individual service members, chaplains, and the local Jewish community. Occasionally we get to do something special and rewarding like this, but even then, all I did was read some english prayers with a touch of Hebrew. Something just about anyone reading this could do. The reward you get, and more importantly the support you provide, is immeasurable and makes a huge difference in the lives of those Jews you serve with. It was the excellent Jewish lay leadership I experienced as a young enlisted Marine that inspired me to seek out this role wherever I go.
At the end of the service I received numerous compliments from non-Jewish attendees. Perhaps, they were just trying to get a closer look at my dress blue coordinated white satin kippah, but they all seemed impressed that these Jews wanted to include their faith in their accomplishment just as the rest of the participants did. The organ player pulled me aside and said that in her 40+ years of performing these ceremonies, this is the first time she had seen a rabbi (her words, not mine) perform a blessing for Jewish aviators. I was a little shocked by that fact, but I told her I hoped that it certainly won’t be the last.
By standing up as proud Jews, these two ensigns showed the world that us Jews continue to serve bravely in the protection of our nation, just as countless of our forefathers have. It made me proud as a Marine and proud as a Jew to be part of it. A heartfelt mazal tov to Ensign K, and Ensign P for holding the title as the Navy’s newest Jewish aviators!
PS: Even after all this, I managed to get my second flight done and somehow finished early enough to catch the tail end of Shabbos dinner. Quite possibly the most rewarding and productive day I have ever had!