Rabbi Emily Rosenzweig of Mt. Vernon was sworn in here this week by the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council as a military chaplain, becoming the first woman rabbi from New York to serve in that capacity.
Ordained in 2006 by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, Rabbi Rosenzweig is now one of nine women rabbis — plus another 60 male rabbis — serving as chaplains in the armed forces, according to the JWB.
Rabbi Rosenzweig, 35, received a master of arts in Jewish Education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education in 2004. After graduation, she performed 10 months of community service with AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) before enrolling at HUC. For the past five years she served as the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in Aurora, Ill. In January, she will report for chaplain training and then officer training before reporting for duty for a minimum of three years as a lieutenant junior grade at the Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois.
Q: Why did you decide to switch from being a pulpit rabbi to becoming a Navy chaplain?
A: I have always wanted to be of service to the Jewish people and to the country. Although my congregational work was meaningful, I found that it wasn’t meeting a certain need for me professionally. I was running programs and was the administrator of the school … but things like figuring out what brand of chips to serve as a snack is not what I wanted to be doing.
But why the military?
I have always been interested in national service. The AmeriCorps program I did after college had a sort of a military tinge to it; we wore a uniform and had some physical training. I liked the camaraderie and the structure of it. I thought that while I was still able to pick up and move and take this different career step — there being no spouse or children depending on me – I should do this.
Would you want to serve in a combat zone?
I want to serve where I am needed. My father is very happy I’m not headed to Afghanistan … but if I am needed I would be glad to serve. There are female chaplains in Afghanistan but not in combat areas.
My mom surprised me when I said I thinking about the military; she said she was thinking about it for me too.
Why did you choose the Navy?
I was hoping to be on a coast, and the Navy’s motto of being the global force for good resonated with me. I like the idea of being able to go where people need help — whether to Haiti or Japan, and to possibly serve in a humanitarian role and represent the country and Jews that way.
Have you ever gotten seasick?
Did the Navy ask about that?
No, but they asked if I could swim. And yes, I can. I can get away from a sinking ship.
Have you met any of the other women rabbi chaplains?
Sarah Schechter and I were both ordained at HUC in Los Angeles and she is now an Air Force chaplain. I have also met Rabbi Heather Borshof several times. She is in the Army.
I also spoke with a woman chaplain in my recruiting process and she said she always felt respected if for no other reason than because of her rank and role.
Will you be conducting Sabbath services?
I will primarily be working with non-Jews, and for six days a week I am everybody’s chaplain. On Shabbat I am the Jews’ rabbi. There will be a weekly Friday night service, I assume, and on holidays I will be able to do some sort of programming in addition to a service.
Do you think women chaplains bring something different to the job?
I have been told I am a very good listener and that is important — to be able to hear people, both what they are saying and not saying. I always take a lot of strength and guidance from Jewish tradition. I think it is helpful to anyone and can benefit anyone. … I have a teacher’s mind — I look for teachable moments as a way to share Judaism and to share wisdom with others.