Friday, January 27, 2012

What I do

I work for some pretty good people.

As a chaplain, I have access to the CO (Commanding Officer), XO (Executive Officer) and SgtMaj (Sergeant Major) of my command. One of the core functions of Naval Chaplaincy is to advise the command, so I’m pretty much unfettered.

Within the regiment that I work for on most days, I get to work with a stellar command team. The Sgt Major is a great guy who reminds me of the father of my friend and colleague Steven Abraham. I like Steve’s dad; it’s not a bad thing. I have nothing but nice things to say about the XO of the regiment. I generally end my day in his office recapping the day and telling jokes.

But it’s the Marines that bring me to work every day. There are 18- and 19-year olds dealing with boy and girl issues. People getting married. Others getting divorced. They’re living life – and possibly getting deployed at any moment.

I was told when I got here that the average Marine in Okinawa spends their time here either drinking, going to the gym, or making babies. It seems they also play a lot of “Call of Duty 3”. But during the day, they do some amazing things.

This week, I met some Marines in the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Company. These are the guys who defuse bombs and try to detect IEDs. Something like 10% of everything that is supposed to go boom instead goes dud. Doesn’t mean it won’t go boom later. These guys go through old bases and search for leftover bomb material.

For the most part, they are adrenaline junkies - but they are also people. People who clear landmines from current and past war zones including but not limited to Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Japan. One of them said to me, “It takes only an hour to fill a field with landmines, but it takes days to clear the same field.”

I also met with some guys in Utilities Company who lost one of their own in Afghanistan a few weeks ago. The guy who used to live down the hall in their barracks had an accident while working with wires. It could have happened here, but it happened there. And now they have to go back to work: keep laying wires, keep working on their machines, keep drilling.

There are a couple of bad eggs here and there; but even my Marine in the Brig (Navy/Marine Corps term meaning “prison”) is a nice guy with a lot to share.

Quick side story before I end: I went to visit him in the brig last night on Camp Hansen. I didn’t actually know where I was going, but I saw a building with crossbars and super high security. I got up to the watchdesk and I asked about the prisoner who I was hoping to meet. The Lance Corporal standing guard looked at me, held his military bearing for about 30 seconds, and then just started laughing. Turns out it was just a super-secure building where all the Marines feel like they are imprisoned; he agreed that the prison-esque crossbars do make the place a little brig-like. After sharing the humor with his watch officer, they gave me really good directions to the brig. End side story.

So it’s been another interesting up and down week. It’s been a little emotionally and spiritually taxing, but Shabbat is here. A little rest couldn’t hurt.

Friday, January 20, 2012

pictures from the passenger seat

I realized a while back that, while I’ve posted a bunch of pictures here so far, very few of them actually showcase the Okinawa that I see everyday. With that in mind, I took a series of pictures out the window of the car to try to give you all a  sense of what it actually looks like here. 

Our area is not all that picturesque. 

But I do like this mural!

The water is always sneaking up on me.
There it is again!
McDonald's is also always sneaking up on me. It's all over the place.
Family shrines are everywhere, and are often visible from the road, especially in areas where there's a particularly good view. We're not sure if people are really buried there, but shrines are definitely the place people go to mourn and commune with their ancestors.
The northern part of the island is highly agricultural, so it's not unusual to see fields and greenhouses like this...
...and this.
There are wind turbines scattered all around the island. Pretty cool, if you ask me.
Have a great weekend!

Friday, January 13, 2012

My First Prayer Breakfast

A Priest, a Minister and a Rabbi are standing on a riverbank. The Priest walks out onto the water and darts over to the other side. The Minister follows him, walks out onto the water, and like the priest, he runs to the other side. The Rabbi steps off the riverbank and plunges into neck-deep water. The Priest turns to the Minister and says, 'Should we tell him where the stepping stones are?'

In case you are wondering, when I was in chaplain school I became friends with a priest and a minister who are now stationed in Okinawa. Much like the joke, I imagine I would be neck-deep in military craziness if I didn’t have these guys. That said, last week I had an experience for which they could not quite prepare me: the prayer breakfast.

I know prayer breakfasts happen all the time in Congress, but I honestly don’t think that I have ever been to one. But why would I? At school and at camp, we always prayed for an hour or so before breakfast – who then wants to go and have a prayer breakfast? It’s a little redundant. So when I was asked to do the Invocation/Grace (After Meals) for the first prayer breakfast of the year I was a little out of my element. I don’t think Christian clergy really get how getting together for breakfast, and having a presentation on “how faith got me through X”, and then rattling off a series of “spontaneous prayers” isn’t really something I know.

So how do you write an invocation for an event that you have never experienced as the representative of the entire Jewish people? Further, how do you come up with a grace after meals for a meal following a meal in which you could eat nothing? Finally, how do you do all this in front of the 2-star general, the colonels and captains, and the dozens of other more experienced chaplains in the room?
You just do it.

The breakfast was awesome. My invocation was followed by a scriptural reading that was benign enough, which was followed by a song led by the awesome captain in charge of the Base Chapels (she’s African-American Charasmatic and a big hugger; if you’ve never been hugged by a person U.S. Navy Captain, you’ve never lived). I’m pretty sure the song was 3 verses, but she made it 6 or 7. The majority of the room was rhythmically challenged, so the clapping was incredibly awkward.

The missionaries (yes, there were missionaries there) looked at me as I was singing and clapping – and dancing a little bit. One of them looked at me and seemed stunned that I was enjoying the music. But how could you not? It was great (and Jesus was not invited to the song).

Side note: Later, the Captain did a prayer for the families concluding with the Southern Baptist favorite conclusion: “in Jesus name we pray. Amen.” I do hate that. Don’t say, “Let us pray” and then conclude with Jesus – it excludes non-trininitarians from the community of prayer and implies that we are not allowed to pray with you. If we are praying together, just pray.

Back to the original story: The Sergeant Major told a story of his experience with prayer, and how it helped him through the bombing of the Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam (he was 400 yds away). I’m not sure I agreed with his analysis of the power-of-prayer, but I was in awe of his faith and how it guided him.

Piggy-backing off the SgtMaj, my friend the minister gave an outstanding prayer for our government and our military decision makers. I was amazed. (The priest got to sit out the event.) We finished up with “America the Beautiful”.

I ate it up. Between the songs, the speech and some of the prayers (not the missionary’s prayer) I was totally pumped for religious ministry. This chaplain-thing is going to be great.

Next week, the priest and the minister are taking me out to a bar. We’ll see how that goes…

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

she made it!!!

checking things out outside...
She was glad to see her bed and her toys...she ran straight over to them!
Big thanks to Jay and Tova for making sure they got here before she did!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Penelope Lane

A few months after we got married, Yoni and I decided to get a puppy. Having a dog was something we had always planned on, and, although it was the winter and not a particularly convenient time for house training, we didn’t want to wait any longer. Over the course of many long walks around the Upper West Side, we had the opportunity to examine and critique many different breeds, and the Airedale Terrier was the first one that we both loved. When we found out that the puppy the breeder was showing us had been born on November 29, 2009 (the day of our wedding!), we knew she was meant to be ours. We named her Penny Lane Skolnik, and lived happily ever after.

These were taken the night we brought Penny home.

That is, of course, until Yoni decided to be active duty in the Navy.

Of course, we took Penny into account when making the decision to do the Navy thing. We agreed that, if we couldn’t take Penny, we wouldn’t go. But that was back in the days when we thought we’d have some choice about where we’d end up. (They told us we would. We didn’t.) When we found out we were moving to Japan, and did some research on importing dogs, we knew we were in trouble. To prevent the spread of rabies and other diseases, Japan has VERY strict import laws: Penny would either have to spend a long time waiting in the States to join Yoni and me, or do a six month kennel-based quarantine in Japan. Needless to say, neither of these were particularly appealing options.  And then there was the paperwork. There is a huge amount of very particular and complicated paperwork necessary for each imported animal.

Figuring out what to do about Penny was one of the most stressful parts of the early PCS (Permanent Change of Station) process. Luckily, Yoni and I both have incredibly supportive and understanding parents, all of whom were willing to help us out and be a part of the process. We decided that Penny would do her quarantine in the US instead of in Japan, meaning she would have to stay behind in the states until January. Although slightly less convenient for us, it seemed like the much less cruel option. Since we would not be around to take care of her, Yoni’s parents generously agreed to be her foster parents: loving her, walking her, feeding her, grooming her, and taking her to the dog park for more than three months. They even agreed to keep her after she broke a window in their house! (She is a little on the rambunctious side.) We would not have been able to do this without their help.

As I mentioned before, though, getting Penny taken care of was only half the battle. We also needed someone on the ground to coordinate all of Penny’s paperwork, make sure she was inspected by all of the necessary people, and to get her on the plane. Although we had decided to work with a pet import company to ease the process a bit, because of the time and geographical differences it would have been very difficult for me to be the point person and get anything accomplished in a time-efficient manner. My parents stepped up to handle this part, and agreed to worry about all the details that none of us really understood. Yoni and I are extremely grateful to them as well.

So, why am I writing about this? Because (fingers crossed) Penny is actually scheduled to arrive in Okinawa next week! Jay and Tova brought Penny to NY earlier in the week; yesterday my dad took her for her final inspections with the vet and the USDA; and she is scheduled to board her plane on Monday and arrive here on Wednesday. Seriously, I could not be more excited. We do skype with her sometimes (she’s not so good at skyping), but Yoni and I haven’t actually seen her since the beginning of October. As any pet owner knows, that is a long time to be separated from the animal you love. I only hope she’ll forgive us for the uncomfortable flying experience when she arrives!