Friday, December 27, 2013

i'm dreaming of a weird christmas

For the second year in a row, Yoni and I were lucky enough to be invited to Christmas dinner. Yoni grew up with a Christian grandmother, so he had some experience with Christmas festivities (supposedly, there are a few pictures of little Yoni with the tree – would love to see those!). I, on the other hand, had no Christian friends until I went to college. I did sometimes experience pre- and post-Christmas at one or another of their houses, but I was never involved in the actual celebration of the day until last year.

I am, however, somewhat of an expert in involving non-Jewish friends in Jewish rituals. More friends of other religious persuasions than I can count have sat around our Shabbat dinner table, Passover seder table – even joined us in synagogue. So when I went to my first (and second) Christmas “dinner” (it was really lunch), I think I subconsciously (or consciously) expected a reverse of that experience. What do I mean? Yes, there would be food, and fellowship, but there would also be at least some kind of religious element – rituals, prayers, discussions that go on for hours before we’re allowed to eat. Something.

Much to my surprise, that was not the case. While there was a prayer before the meal, I have NEVER eaten a meal with another chaplain or chaplain spouse where there was NOT a prayer. And this prayer was in no way tailored to Christmas; it was of the garden variety, thank-you-for-the-food and fellowship etc. And that was the sum total of the day’s religious content. We ate “dinner,” relaxed, played board games, sat around the tree, went home. I don’t know if this is typical of Christmas celebrations, or if the more overt religious content was removed to avoid making us uncomfortable, but this experience did reinforce my believe that non-Jews who participate in Jewish rituals must think we’re crazy.

Maybe the difference lies in the liturgical/non-liturgical divide. Whatever the reason, I was grateful both to be included in my friend’s Christmas celebration, and also to be spared too much celebrating of Christmas. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Farewell Engineers. Hello MEU!

Seldom does a week go by without somebody asking why there are two Jewish chaplains in Okinawa. 

Sometimes people ask nicely:  “So what will you be doing now that Yonina is out here?”  Depending on my mood, I can answer either “My actual job: battalion chaplain and caring for the Marines”, “Same thing as you: getting a tan and watching the waves”, or some sort of pleasantries that lets on that we actual have different jobs.
Some people ask me with pity: “Are you ok?  Do you have other work?” As if I was demoted because I didn’t do a good job.  I mentally stick my tongue out at those people, and gently remind them that my official title was never rabbi for the Jewish community of Okinawa, that was just something that got thrown at me as a collateral duty as I am also a rabbi.  I prayed for a rabbi to be assigned to base.

I am an operational chaplain (as opposed to the garrison or base chaplain).  While Yonina has a battalion at base, no slight to her - base jobs are sad jobs.  Chaplains want to be out in the field; its what separates us from working in a congregation.  Yonina is doing a good job with that; I'm glad that I don't have to do it anymore.  It's a hard primary job; It's really rough as a side job.  

Until this past week, my primary job was the 9th Engineer Support Battalion.  I had a battalion that maintains an operational tempo – gets out into the weeds, theoretically shoots at things and gets shot at by other things, and performs engineering work.  I like the engineers.

As of this week, that changes.  I will still like the engineers, but I'm moving to a CLB.  The operational tempo speeds up and the deployments begin.

Utilizing the fact that we can keep rabbis in multiple places out here, I will be deploying with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.  Marines are notorious for being expeditionary.  They don’t wait for a fight to break out somewhere in the world before they deploy; instead, they throw a bunch of Marines on ships and send them out to wait for the fight to begin.  Combat Logistics Battalion – 31 deploys twice a year for a few months each time to provide Combat Service Support.  It’s pretty bad-ass.

I’ll get to be on a ship, and hopefully see some of the finest ports in South East Asia.  We’ll do Theater Security/Community Relations Projects in the Philippines, Thailand, Korea and Mainland Japan; we’ll be the first on scene for Humanitarian Assistance, Disaster Relief, Non-Combatant Evacuations, and the like throughout the region.  I’m pretty pumped.

Jewishly: it will be a little lonely, but I already started to find some Jews hidden in the woodwork.  As it goes, these are the true deployed Marines out here and they are never around for the chagim.  I will be sad to be apart from my beautiful loving and always compassionate wife for these days, but I’m glad that I’m going to get to do the rabbi stuff for people who are truly forward deployed – “at the tip of the spear” for the next year.

I will definitely miss the engineers, but I’m excited to do the true operational job.  That’s the work I signed up to do.  Now, we’ll just have to see where the wind takes us.

Friday, December 6, 2013

a rant

I rarely use this space to rant, but today it just seems like the right choice.

Last night, Yoni and I attended a ball celebrating the 238th birthday of the US Navy Chaplain Corps. For the most part, we had a lovely evening.

What was the problem, you ask? Food. Of course.

Yoni and I are well-practiced at fighting food battles here in Okinawa. Most of the time we don’t get worked up about it because we go in expecting problems. But last night we had RSVP’d as vegetarians, and so we weren’t wearing our protective armor.

It was a four-course meal. The first course was a salad next to shrimp. No thank you. The next course was a (delicious looking) pumpkin soup, made with beef broth. Thanks, but no thanks. The (vegetarian) entrĂ©e was some weird bastardization of eggplant parmesan. And then there was dessert. We were frustrated but not particularly surprised that there was no vegetarian option for the first two courses. After all – T.I.O. (this is Okinawa). We agreed that, after the ball, we would figure out who to talk to and address the issue appropriately.

But then the manager of the Officer’s Club (where the ball was being held) came by our table to ask if everything was ok. And…I might have gotten into it with her. It went something like this.

Manager: Hope you’re all enjoying your evenings. Is everything alright?
Leora: Actually, I’m pretty disappointed with the vegetarian offerings tonight.
Manager: How do you mean?
Leora: Well, we’re here for a four-course meal, but there was only a vegetarian alternative offered for one course.
Manager: Well, it was a pumpkin soup.
Leora: Yes, with a beef broth. That kind of goes against the meaning of the word vegetarian.
Manager: The truth is, we have too many special requests to be able to honor them.
Leora: Well, by offering a vegetarian option, you are pretending to honor them. It’s very misleading to arrive at a meal you expect to be able to partake in only to find out that you can’t eat most of it.
Manager: We’re just not able to accommodate everyone. Too many people want to be gluten free or whatever. Maybe next time, if you let us know in advance that you’re coming, we can work something out. It’s just that a lot of our flavorings have meat bases; we can’t be expected to serve people food without flavor.
Leora: (!!!) If I let you know in advance you’ll accommodate us?!? I’m pretty sure that, by registering as vegetarians, we did exactly that. That was your advance notice. Why else would we RSVP?

It went on and on. She refused to cede any ground even though she was being RIDICULOUS. Eventually, she offered to partially refund the tickets, but then she walked away and never came back. And even when she offered the refund, she was not apologetic, nor did she admit that what I was saying was valid in any way, shape or form. She was just trying to placate me. I’m pretty sure I was right, though. Grrr.

Ok. Rant over. Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 29, 2013

RP2's Last Day in Okinawa

Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Hunger Games coming to Okinawa, Anniversary, and Shabbat all coinciding in the same few days: there are a lot of things that I could write about.  I choose Chanukah – but only in a peripheral way.

I come to celebrate the shamash: the uncelebrated candle that doesn’t count, that stands apart from the other candles.

Fact:  We are not permitted to make use of the light from the chanukiyah, we can only look at them in appreciation of the miracles of Chanukah.  BUT the Shamash can be used to light anything, we can keep warm by its heat, we can use it to heat up leftover Turkey (if its big enough).  Shamash is the term that synagogues in Europe into modernity called the person who kept everything running.  Today, I salute the shamash.

Like the shamash of yore, the job of Religious Program Specialist is not the glamorous job that many think of as a great naval rating.  Some choose it.  Others are chosen by it (and not in the way that many refer to “a calling”, more like a “this is your job, suck it up” kind of thing).  Designed as a track of the Yeoman rating, Religious Program Specialists serve an administrative function.  They ensure that chapels are properly maintained, and they are in charge of making sure the tzedakah box gets put into the right hands.

An RP is a shamash with an M4 and about 200 rounds.  The RP provides physical protection to the chaplain who is not allowed to bear arms.  But more than that: When we went to Afghanistan, RP2 Worth not only protected me but during services ensured the protection of all those who came to pray.

An RP is part of the team.  Not the same job as chaplain, but an imbedded person who Marines and Sailors can vent to and not feel that they are imposing on “the sir”.  A good RP steers people to the chaplain when the time arises.  He’s not a counselor.  But he’s part of the team. 

Today was a little rough for me, because half of my team is leaving the Navy.  I know that John M. Worth is going to succeed in finishing college (because if he doesn’t I will kill him).  I know that he is going to be an amazing aide to his father and mother who certainly miss him.  I know that anybody who commits a crime in Norfolk once he enters the police force there will seriously regret it.  And I know that someday he will be able to answer to his given name and not only “RP”, but for me, he will always be RP.

When things get crazy at the Battalion, I know that we will weather it all together.  When I get the official report of what happened over the weekend, I know that the real and unofficial report will be more awesome when delivered by RP on Monday morning.  When the call came to go to Afghanistan, I never felt a real threat because RP was going to be with me.   He is truly a good soul, and I hope the nice good Christian girls at Chowan read this letter of recommendation from a rabbi and recognize that he’s a good catch.

Good luck, RP.  Both Leora and I will miss you.

Friday, November 22, 2013

the indians in the lobby

First of all, let me start by apologizing for not posting last week. After two full years of writing this blog (our on-island anniversary is next week), it’s honestly hard for me to find things to write about, even on a bi-weekly basis. But I’m trying.

When we arrived two years ago on the Monday of Thanksgiving week, we (understandably) weren’t sure about our Thanksgiving plans. We’d just moved to a new country on the other side of the world where we didn’t know anyone. How were we supposed to make plans for a family-centric holiday? We ended up going to a buffet at one of the Officer’s Clubs, where there WAS an ice sculpture of a turkey, but there was NOT a lot of food for us to eat. By the time our second on-island Thanksgiving rolled around, we had a couple of friends, and were lucky enough to share a meal with them and their daughter. We’ll be with them (and a few others) again this year.

Here’s the thing about Thanksgiving, though. I know, as Jews, we often think of holidays as being all about the food, but Thanksgiving really amps that up to the next level. Normally that’s not a problem. Every family has their own traditional foods, and most peoples’ Thanksgiving dinners probably look similar from year to year. I know ours always did. When you’re celebrating in what is essentially a transient community, though, everyone is missing their families/friends/traditions back home, and so whatever plans they have made for themselves, they want their own personal traditions to be honored. And that’s not a problem either – it just means there is inevitably WAY too much food. Yoni and I are going to a meal where there will be 3-5 other adults, and there will be two turkeys. Not to mention a ridiculous list of other foods.

Food mania aside, spending Thanksgiving away from home is always bittersweet. But, seeing as the holiday is actually about giving thanks and not about food, I try to see the sweet instead of the bitter. I’m thankful this year to have friends to have Thanksgiving dinner with; I’m thankful that the temperature in Okinawa has finally dropped below 95 degrees; and I’m thankful for Yoni and Penny, who put a smile on my face and make it okay to call our apartment ‘home.’

Friday, November 8, 2013

It's in the Details...and the Board Game.

I hate Halloween.  I’ve had fun doing things with my Marines over the past two years, but at this point I think its time to turn in the old Panda suit and bowtie and end the holiday once and for all.

It’s not the holiday itself that makes me upset.  I could care less if they want to get dressed up like crazy people and masquerade around.  Its the aftermath.

Once the scary movies are watched.  Once the drinks are imbibed.  Once the Ouija boards come out… 

Half these kids already believe that Okinawa is haunted by the ghosts of 1945.  The rest of them believe it's outright demons reaching through a portal in space.  What exactly do you tell a Marine who has had a pretty terrifying experience with demonology that he should do with his Ouija board at the end of the week?

I combed through the Table of Contents in all of my Pastoral Care Books, and I found absolutely nothing.  Good stuff on “Use of Psalms” and “Caring for the Dying and the Families”.  That’s all well and good, and I use some of this stuff regularly in my chaplaincy.  But where does one find: “Help! I Believe that My Barracks is Possessed With An Evil Demon that I Summoned with a Ouija Board Who I Have Already Self-Exorcised from My Body But Is Definitely Still in the Room.” 

I know what you're thinking:  I checked the index.  Nothing; no “Exorcisms: Performance Thereof” or “Usage of Catholic Holy Water in Jewish Ritual”. No “Demons”, “Devils” or even “Dyubbuks” (I double checked the dyubbuk thing).

While it is every young Rabbi’s responsibility to blame their seminary for sending them out to the field unprepared for “real life”, I accept that this might be beyond the pale of the regular rabbinate.

Many might scoff at this, but it's what the Marine actually believes.  Not because he’s drunk or because he’s crazy, but because there is religious underpinning to it (which also told him to never touch a Ouija board).  He agreed to work through the issues that led him to the board in the first place, but he still wanted me to exorcise the room and destroy the board.

So I got on to my research.  I went to my religious leader, Rabbi Google.  You’d be amazed at the sights he gave me.  First off, as it turns out – destruction of a Ouija board is a big deal and if you do it wrong – things get worse (like crossing the streams, worse)(that's a Ghostbusters reference, in case you missed it. Leora did.).

Theoretically, you can burn it or do a ritual with holy water and bury it.  He doesn’t trust the burning thing, and I can’t really do the other ritual.  So I went to the subject matter expert in this: a priest (they’re so good with exorcisms!).

Referral: A Chaplain’s Best Friend.  That was my only real course of action, and I felt pretty good about it. 

I’m going to follow up with the corporal next week, but worse comes to worst, I’ve got EOD on standby with two bricks of C-4 ready to blast those demons and that Ouija board into Kingdom Come.