Watching last week’s Veterans Day parade on Fifth Avenue, Rabbi Irving Elson was filled with emotions. One of them was anger.
“So many people didn’t give a second look,” he recalled later that day. “They didn’t even stop talking on their cell phones.”
Rabbi Elson conceded that he might be oversensitive, having just returned from a second tour in Iraq.
“Maybe I’m just shell shocked,” said the 44-year-old chaplain, who is assigned to the 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment. Although a Navy officer, he is the only Jewish chaplain assigned to the Marine Corps in Iraq. (The Army has a rabbi in Baghdad).
“It was very hard for me to stand there [at the parade] knowing what my Marines are going through right now,” Rabbi Elson said in an interview at a Midtown hotel during a brief visit here last week. To the nonchalant passers-by of the parade route, he retroactively implored: “Show some appreciation, take a pause. Put down the cell phone. You don’t have to stop your lives, just feel there is something more important than our ordinary lives.”
Rabbi Elson, a Yeshiva University graduate who was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, served in the Persian Gulf prior to and during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, starting in Kuwait in January 2003 and leaving Baghdad eight months later. He returned to Iraq just before Rosh HaShanah this year.
“The Marines in Iraq have no one to blow the shofar for them,” he told his 3-year-old daughter, Abigail, before he left.
Abigail was one of the lucky ones: She got her father back in a matter of weeks, and in one piece. As of Tuesday, the U.S. casualty rate in Iraq had reached 1,194 dead and more than 17,000 wounded.
Rabbi Elson spent the High Holy Days roaming the Sunni Triangle looking for Jewish Marines and organizing services, often under fire.
“Almost every day we were mortared or rocketed,” he said. The rabbi estimated that about 1 percent of the 40,000 Marines in Iraq are Jewish.
“It was a very significant time, for them and for me,” Rabbi Elson said of the High Holy Days. “It’s a time of introspection, when you face your own mortality. They say there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that’s certainly true. Just imagine a young Marine going on patrol and in the holiday [liturgy] we talk about who shall live and who shall die.”
Despite the long months away from home, he insisted morale is high.
“By the time I left they were gearing up for [the campaign in] Fallujah,” Rabbi Elson said. “Everyone is committed to getting the job done. I’m shocked at how people feel over here as opposed to over there. Most Marines see a great value. They get to see how evil the bad guys are. What more important thing is there than to get rid of evil people?”
Rabbi Elson grew up in Mexico City, the son of an ex-Marine and a Mexican mother. He joined the Naval Reserve while in college, and was commissioned as a full-time lieutenant, junior grade, in 1987, just two weeks after he was ordained. Now a commander, he has served in Okinawa, Japan, Italy and other bases before reporting for duty at the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar, near San Diego, in 2003, where he now lives with his wife, Francine, and three children.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and himself a former chaplain who served in Korea in the early 1960s, said he was “especially proud of the extraordinary service provided by the seminary’s graduate, Rabbi Irving Elson, to our military personnel in Iraq. His faith is matched by his courage.”
Rabbi Elson was in town last week to deliver a lecture at JTS on his experiences in Iraq and to take part in a benefit for United Synagogue’s Shirley and Jacob Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center in Israel. Among the items for auction was the shofar Rabbi Elson sounded in Fallujah.
The shofar, at least, has seen the last of combat zones, sold to a benefactor for $2,000. As for Rabbi Elson, he’ll go wherever duty calls.
“Even after being sent to Iraq, deployed away from my family and being shot at, I wouldn’t trade what I do for being a civilian pulpit rabbi,” he said. “I feel God has challenged me to do this.”