On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

At West Point

West Point cadets

West Point cadets, courtesy of West Point Public Affairs.

/ 20 Heshvan 5772

I spent a day at West Point last week—meeting Jewish and non-Jewish cadets, seeing the sights, talking about leadership education with administration and faculty, and teaching a class about Judaism, the distinctive pattern of religious belief and practice in America, and the role of religion in stimulating and sanctifying violence—and in eliciting and sanctifying compassion. It was a powerful experience—rendered all the more so for me by the fact that it took place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and—according to the Hebrew calendar—of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Several moments in particular stand out in my memory.

I think I will not soon forget them.

First, the collective picture of the cadets: young, very young; dressed identically in grey uniform, hair on the men cut short (17 percent of the cadets this year are women); non-stop salutes to my host, Major Kirkpatrick, and every other officer who came within their vicinity, even while jogging; the way they stood at attention when their teacher walked into the room, and began every answer to every question put to them with “Sir” (I could get used to this); their patient, silent sitting in the mess-hall, food before them, knives and forks at the ready, for as long as their superiors took for announcements; good-natured acceptance of the rigors of the Academy’s routine, both because they have no choice in the matter and out of real determination to stay with the program and serve their country; the fact that all were smart enough to be admitted and to graduate, and some were smart enough to excel anywhere; how young they were.

I liked the cadets I met—and therefore worried about the shadow of war that I saw hanging over their campus, even on a cloudless autumn day. When I visited the cemetery with the major who was my host in late afternoon, I asked if the students fully understand what they are facing after graduation. Most do not, he said, and we agreed that is perhaps a good thing. The major told me that of late far too many recent graduates were arriving home to West Point for burial, including a soldier who had deployed to the war and been killed within a year after graduation—and so was accompanied to the grave by classmates still in school. I shivered, and not because of the cold. I looked at the fresh faces before me with new concern. It reminded me of the teaching I had done at Tel Aviv University, to students just after army service, and before army service, and always bracketed by milu’im.

What did I want the cadets at West Point (and their teachers) to understand? That religion need not be a source or justification for violence, persecution, hatred, and terror but could be—and often has been—just the opposite; that America represents a precious experiment in this direction, one that we must all work to help succeed—for if tolerance and mutual respect are not possible here, in this country, where in the world will they be possible? And if they do not take root on this earth, threatened as it is on many fronts with harm or destruction, religion as it is a powerful force shaping minds and hearts, we are all in dire trouble. I began the class with George Washington’s remarkable letter to the Newport synagogue—that amazing moment when the president of the United States said something to Jews that they had never heard before from a Gentile ruler in all our history and have heard few times from powers on earth since: that it was “now no more that tolerance is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Judaism has done its share to make the American experiment a success—and, indeed, has offered resources for the practice of pluralism that other faiths might do well to emulate.

I wanted the students to know all this, really know it; to hear it from me loud and clear; to have the message lend strength to an army in which Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others serve side by side, aided by a military system in which chaplains of all faiths (like the able Jewish chaplain I met at West Point, a graduate of Yeshiva University) minister to soldiers of all faiths.

I wanted them to understand one thing more: that many of us care deeply for their welfare, are grateful for their service, salute them for their courage, even if these sentiments often remain invisible. It bothers me, I told the major, that there is so little interaction between civilians and the military in our country these days. Not only do we have an all-volunteer army, rather than a draft, but that army is composed primarily of recruits from certain regions of the country, certain socio-economic backgrounds, even certain families. I have met soldiers, former soldiers, and very high-ranking soldiers in Israel as a matter of course, almost from my first visit as a student in the 1970’s. I met my first American military officer only a few years ago, when a visiting national security expert from Israel invited me to a conference at Stanford—where I had long served on the faculty—devoted to key issues facing the Western allies. Stereotypes abound, in both directions—just as they do among religious groups that know little about one another; high-ranking officers get tired of civilians’ surprise at how smart they are; the soldiers pay the price among civilians for being the bearers of unpopular and perhaps unwinnable conflicts—and so it goes.

The military needs more good Jewish chaplains. I hope JTS and the RA can help to supply them in coming years. If we are going to send men and women into combat, they need caring for, and praying for, and praying with. Washington’s prayer at Newport remains one to which we can readily say Amen. “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

28 Comments

  1. Mari Rich says:

    A lovely piece of writing! I shivered along with you in the cemetery.

  2. David Teitelbaum says:

    Arnie: Thanks for your comments to the cadets. I was an Army Chaplain in Korea during the war. (As you know, clergy are not drafted, but must volunteer.) Korea was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have long favored a national draft at age 18 for community service, either military or other form of community service. A great boon to the country, and a rewarding and maturing experience for young people. KOL TUV, DAVID TEITELBAUM

  3. mimi alperin says:

    almost every young person serves in the military in Israel which means there are close ties between those who serve and every family- because we have a volunteer army most americans have few ties to the military making it too easy to forget the sacrifices made by those who serve – we need more reminders like your visit and beautiful speech – and more of us need to show our respect and gratitude as you did

  4. Nechama Tamler says:

    thank you for your visit and for reflecting on it in such a thoughtful way. It got me thinking how divided we are along class lines and in so many other ways. Loved the Geo Washington quote on who is “tolerating” whom.

  5. Scott Bolton says:

    Your writing so resonates with me; I will share it with our students. In a six-point vision statement we have created for what ideal graduates of our Schechter Network School, Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School, look like, we have included pride of American citizenship. Another point is that they understand that Judaism and mitzvot are the keys and gateways to lives filled with more compassion and empathy, that the stories of war and destruction in the Tanakh are the precursors to a time of Prophetic visions (my Reform roots are showing here!) and Chassidic, mystical notions of ridding the world of klippot, to reveal the true sparks of Godliness and the unity of all. Being at West Point must have been so powerful, so much about our great American Jewish pride. Thank you for teaching soldiers who protect our freedom and democracy about who we are and what we truly stand for. Your outreach at this time in the world is essential. We must show that Jewish ideals are to “banish hatred and bigotry,” as our prayers proclaim. What a great connection to the words and declarations of President George Washington, in his letter to the Newport, RI community. I remember and teach our children about Moses Seixas’ letter to President Washington, before our new leader’s response, that celebrated the great victory of the U.S. Army and the establishment of a new government that guaranteed “civil and religious liberty.” Washington said that our government, and its agents, would give persecution no assistance. He also set out a requirement – that people who live under the protection of the United States Constitution “should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” By conducting ourselves as active, civil participants in our democratic processes, voting, contacting our legislators, lighting Shabbat candles, respecting our neighbors rights to either live out their religious faith or promote new constructs that heighten their own sense of freedom, we, I think are doing our part. Thank you for this new blog and new inspiration. When our students lit memorial candles on a Jewish star, on the steps of the courthouse in New City, NY, on Kristallnacht, I think that our cadets, too, were preparing for the great battles ahead.

  6. Chancellor-thanks for a moving reflection and personal insights on an experience that most of us won’t have. Your point about the lack of interaction between soldiers and civilians left me wondering how we can bridge that gap. Doing so would be beneficial to both sides. And thanks for your leadership in promoting a view of a compassionate Judaism that fosters religious acceptance of people of all faiths.

  7. Tuvia Dovid says:

    All well and good but not enough, at least to this non-veteran of the Vietnam war era. Did you speak to anyone at West Point, or did anyone speak to you, about what to do when an order is morally questionable (“Shoot that man running away from us”) or reprehensible (“Shoot that prisoner who is tied to the post”)? About what to do when wrongdoing is revealed, petty (“I learned the barracks poker game is rigged”) or a violation of the most fundamental laws of humanity and combat (“I’m having nightmares from the hunting, torture and killing of innocent civilians”)? These are certainly not everyday occurrences in our military, thank Gd, but neither are they so rare as to deserve no attention. What is being done to prevent them, so no U.S. soldier or sailor or flier or other member of the military admits to acquiescing to evil as in the Holocaust, “I was just following orders.” Surely there is much that you and Jewish chaplains can do to carry forth the teaching of Hillel (paraphrased slightly) in Pirkei Avos, “Where there are no humans, strive to be a human.” Is that happening? Tell us, please.

  8. Ray Alexander says:

    Unfornatly, during the time I spent in the armed services, i never met a Chaplain. You are the first that I have heard speak of the trials, and some times sadness that you must deal with on occasion. I have heard stories of chaplains that wept at the untimely (and un-necessary) death of one of us.
    I don’t give a hoot what religion a chaplain is, when he thinks enough to weep for his charges,he most certainly has my support. THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE…..

  9. Rachel Ain says:

    Chancellor Eisen,
    Thank you for visiting West Point as well as encouraing JTS students to enter the chaplaincy. I served the US Navy during Rabbinical School and it was some of the best “on the job” training I received as it complemented what I was learning in the classroom.

    Proud to be a JTS alum!

  10. Susan Kristol says:

    One way to start bridging the gap between our military and Jewish civilians would be to include a regular prayer for the safety and success of American troops fighting overseas in our Shabbat services. The siddurs used by most congregations don’t include such a prayer, although we do have a brief prayer for the Israeli military.

    • Steven says:

      Our congregation has permanently affixed prayers for both the US Armed Forces and IDF to the back inside cover of Sim Shalom. I assume the RA wrote them. We recite them every Shabbat immediately after the prayers for the country and Israel.

  11. Today was my birthday and when I came home from work there was the new blog from the Chancellor.

    What a wonderful and thought provoking present on a subject not often addressedvin our community
    I look forward to reading the blogs throughout the year.

  12. Mervin Tomsky, Rabbi says:

    Ya’sher koach, Arnie on your excellent article. I’m a veteran of WWll, having served in the China Burma India Theater of War after being drafted at ager 18. You mentioned that you were bothered about the lack of interaction between the civilian and military in our society. One suggestion: that our congregations hold an evening once or twice a year [Shabbat eve, or otherwise] when veterans or current military personnel would have an opportunity to speak about one unique experience of their service. Every soldier, etc., has a story to tell, and it might be a way of bridging the gap of understanding between the components of our society.

  13. Diana Lerner says:

    Recently I visited a neighboring Kehillah and the hazan asked everyone to stand for Mourner’s Kaddish to represent those in our Armed Forces who are unable to recite it. I found that moment to be very moving.

    May G*d bless and protect those who defend our nation.

  14. Margie Tutnauer says:

    As the Savta of two soldiers serving in the army here in Israel, I agree with your thoughts. Those serving in Tzahal are with few exceptions, respected and admired.

    At a recent family simcha, my officer grandson had only a short leave and appeared in uniform. He was a center of positive attention! We all felt so proud.

    Please continue to share your visits and words of insight!

  15. Richard Sherwin says:

    Thanks… a relief not to hear the sick ‘them vs us’ approach … or the ‘military’ as if it excluded or contradicted the civilian. I served in the USAF and the Israeli Reserves. And pray daily for the welfare of ALL who keep both countries alive and thriving and ‘free’ with their dedicated lives. The committment and intelligence of the USA officer corps and enlisted personnel made me realize it’s not merely votes in ballot boxes but votes with your life that keeps both countries admirable and alive. And not militarist …

  16. Kenneth P. Katz says:

    Great post. But I do want to quibble with the statement “It bothers me, I told the major, that there is so little interaction between civilians and the military in our country these days.” There is in fact plenty of interaction between civilians and the military in our country these days, just not in the social and professional circles in which you inhabit.

  17. Josh Sherwin says:

    Chancellor Eisen,

    As a recent JTS graduate who is serving on Active duty as a Navy Chaplain attached to the Marine Corps, I thank you for sharing your insight and reflections from your visit.

    I have now been serving for 2 years and have made 3 trips to Afghanistan in that time, and more often than not have found that I am the only Rabbi these Sailors, Marines, Soldiers, and Airmen have ever met (even with the senior leadership). Yes, the are Jews in the military, and I thank you for asserting that we need to be encouraging more Rabbis to serve.

    In my opinion and experience, the greatest problem and obstacle is the JTS and AJU do not encourage our Rabbinical students to travel this path, and in fact often makes it so difficult as to be discouraging. The lower salaries in the military make it extremely difficult to repay student loans, and yet JTS does not offer increased financial aid or incentives for those seeking this option. Instead, we emphasize the pulpit world as the ideal, and reinforce the idea that being in the military is not a job for a nice young Jewish boy or girl.

    It is not enough for our young Rabbis to recite a prayer for our armed forces, or even to serve in the Reserves. We NEED more Rabbis on active duty!

    How do you propose to support, encourage, foster, and make this sentiment a reality?

    Josh Sherwin, LT, USN, CHC
    Headquarters Battalion Chaplain
    2nd Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, NC

  18. Rabbi Herbert Rosenblum says:

    Dear Arnie:
    I am a JTS grad (1954) and served as a chaplain at the tail end of the Korean war; loved your message and analyses.
    One of our colleagues, Rabbi Fred Kazan, has one son currently at West Point, and another planning to enter next year. He is very proud of them and of their commitments to serve their country to the best of their ability.

  19. Shannon Way says:

    Well done.
    MAJ Shannon Way,
    Baghdad

  20. Julie O'Neill says:

    An excellent and thoughtful article. I’d forgotten about my visit to West Point on my H.S. senior trip to D.C. I was at that time impressed by the uniforms in a very different way! More recently a young man came to a Bar Mitzvah at my synagogue in full uniform. How young he looked – and innocent. During Kiddush I thanked him for his service to our country and working to keep all of us safe. He blushed but also smiled and thanked me. Reading your thoughts reminded me of that day. I wonder – and hope – that he is well today. Thank you for reminding me of that day, especially this erev Shabbat before Thanksgiving.

  21. Shmuel Sandler says:

    I have been the Ginor Visiting Professor last year at JTS and I had the pleasure of some interesting discussions with you. At these meetings and on other occassions I noticed your caring for Israel’s survivl as a Jewish state. This blog has confirmed your sensitivity to both countries who at this stage in history share, more than ever a common destiny.
    Ko Lechai
    Shmuel Sandler

  22. David Broner says:

    Chancellor Eisen:
    I appreciate your insight on the topic of our military volunteers. Most of us congregants are a lucky bunch as we see the military experience through news articles and TV but basically are seperated from the real action and people that serve for us. My home shul in Detroit, Shaarey Zedek held a Veterans Day Shabbat on Nov. 12th and it was well intended. We all need reminders that our country is protected by our fellow Americans that few of us know. I have recently visited NY and at both Kehilath Jeshrun and at B’nai Jeshrun they took a minute to say a special prayer for those soldiers that gave their lives in that recent week. I suggest that every synagogue mention those names and pays honor to those fellow citizens who are paying the ultimate cost for our freedom.

  23. Hazzan Henry Rosenblum says:

    When will JTS realize that trained Cantors can work in chaplaincy too? There are present students and recent graduates of the Miller school who are already working as hospital and prison chaplains. They need JTS’s support and advocacy.

  24. Gary Goldberg says:

    Chancellor Eisen, Thank you for taking the time and interest to visit West Point and for sharing your reflections on this experience. As a physician working in the polytrauma rehabilitation program of the Veterans Administration, I have experienced first-hand on a daily basis in my work the very real impact of our current conflicts on the minds, bodies and souls of our service members recovering from their injuries and how it has affected not only the injured but everyone connected to them. Our ability to deal medically with the physical wounds of war has advanced to the point where many more are surviving their physical wounds than ever before, but we have a long way to go in terms of understanding how to treat the long-term spiritual and psychological impact of war and to guide the recovery from war-related physical and psychological wounds, once the immediate impact has been addressed and medically stabilized. While it may be a trite statement, war experience fundamentally transforms a person at an existential level–the horror of war strips a person of their subjectivity and has the power to shatter the soul, as Emmanuel Levinas said some time ago reflecting on his experience during World War II. The process of recovery from the wounds of war not only requires medical knowledge but also spiritual support and understanding. The process of rehabilitation and re-integration from war injuries is as much a spiritual concern as a medical one. In the context of medical treatment in the Veterans Administration Medical Centers, the value of the chaplaincy in helping to serve the wounded cannot be underestimated. I echo the pleas from the military chaplains who have commented here. There is a need for the service of Jewish chaplains along with chaplains of all faiths, not only in the military, but also in partnership with medical teams treating the wounded in military hospitals and in the VA. Those entrusted with the training and education of our future spiritual leaders need to be deeply sensitized to these important needs so that the educational programs can include elements that will prepare them to recognize and be motivated to address these special concerns.

  25. Rabbi Richard Hammerman` says:

    When I have an opportunity to lead services, I recall the names of those American service personnel killed in action the past week to take away from the anonymity with which these wars are taking place and the disconnect between American citizens and American service personnel. On Yom Kippur, at Yizkor, I passed around color photos of service personnel killed the last year. Many took the photos home- to remember. One 11 -year old insisted on placing the photos on the refrigerator in the family kitchen.

  26. MAJ CJ Kirkpatrick says:

    Chancellor Eisen-

    Again, many thanks for your visit to USMA on 09NOV. And thanks for your kind words and reflections on your visit – truly moving. My cadets and I truly enjoyed your time here with us. As I mentioned in my earlier email, the highest praise I can give is that my cadets are still referencing and reflecting on your talk two weeks later. As a life-long educator, you know that is high praise indeed.

    MAJ CJ KIRKPATRICK
    Instructor, USMA

  27. Betty Fellows says:

    Great article. I really appreciate your new blog and look forward to reading it.

    One suggestion. Add a RSS feed so that those of us who want to follow you won’t miss a single word.

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