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A call to duty

Highest ranking Jewish military chaplain to head JWB

elson-portrait-195x293Rabbi Irving Elson, a veteran of the Iraq war, was the highest-ranking Jewish chaplain in the military when he concluded his 35-year military career in September.

Elson, a U.S. Navy captain, was serving as deputy chaplain of the United States Marine Corps when he retired. But don’t think he’s taking a break.

In mid-November, Elson will become the director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a role that has been filled by Rabbi Harold Robinson, a retired rear admiral, for the past 10 years.

He’s looking forward to taking over as head of JWB, which is the first and oldest endorser of Jewish chaplains to the military. He’s looking for ways to harness technology to assist Jewish military personnel in their service to their country, and rabbis in their service to those who serve.

“We are a 21st century military, so we need to have a 21st century JWB to back up our rabbis and military personnel,” says Elson. “You’ll be hearing this from me a lot. We need to use social media and remote learning. These are millennials and Gen Xers serving. This is not bubbe and zayde’s military, so we can’t be bubbe and zayde’s JWB.”

But if an organization can survive long enough to be on the cusp of its 100th birthday, it has the tools it needs to adapt.

“The foundations were laid 100 years ago, and some things never change,” he added. “We still support Jewish military personnel in times of peace and times of war, assure the quality of chaplains to the military and to the VA, and establish links to the local community.”

One of the ways he wants to do that is by increasing the interaction of what should be a natural alliance between JCCs and the JWB. In 1917, the Jewish Welfare Board was established from a coalition of Jewish organizations that came together to support the young Jewish men—many immigrants and first generation Americans—who were heading off to serve in World War I. JWB proved to be so effective an organization that it remained together after the war had ended. Its role shifted, and two divisions were established—one to continue serving the needs of Jews in the armed forces, and the other to serve Jewish Community Centers.

And they both continue today to exist under one banner—Jewish Community Centers Association of North America.

“JCCs, for the most part, have been very supportive of Jewish personnel in the military,” Elson says.

But there is room to improve. Elson believes that Jews in the military, including chaplains, have a lot to offer JCCs in terms of programming. Fitness and wellness, working with young people, and leadership training are all areas in which they have expertise. “The way I see it, is it’s not just ‘take, take, take.’ We have a lot to give and this is the makings of a good relationship.”

When he first comes onboard he’ll be working on a two- to five-year strategic plan for the organization. He wants to leverage social media and distance learning to support JWB rabbis and Jewish military personnel, and to examine how we provide for veterans in the VA system.

According to JCC Association Vice President David Posner, who oversees JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, Elson “has the experience and understands the needs of chaplains.”

He has served overseas in wartime, and his last stint was at the Pentagon. According to Posner, this has allowed Elson to “develop the contacts the JWB director will require when engaged in the advocacy work we need to do.”

That advocacy work is some of the most important the organization engages in today. JWB continues to be a leader in this kind of advocacy work and has paved the way for others, including Muslims and Sikhs who serve, to advocate for their rights, and has worked in partnership with them.

Elson will be the organization’s eighth professional director since 1942—the first two directors were volunteer chairs who served from 1917 through 1942. A graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, he is a Conservative rabbi following his immediate predecessors, Robinson, a Reform rabbi, and Rabbi David Lapp, who is Orthodox. That succession, and the way the three Jewish movements work together within the parameters of serving Jewish men and women in the military, is rare these days in Jewish life, and something the organization holds to with great pride.

Elson is someone who can navigate those issues and brings a great deal of respect to the job from the field, according to Rabbi Ira Kronenberg.

“Above everything else, Irv is a mensch,” says Kronenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who serves as the Rabbinical Council of America’s chairman to the JWB plenary. “ He has the skills necessary to work not only with the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines, but also to be able to separate denominational issue form military issues.”

hanukkah-with-irvElson is one of those “people persons” who is able to see the good in everyone. “I think he’s an excellent choice to be head of JWB. His stature, both physical (Elson is 6’1”) and with military brass means that “when he goes to speak to the chief of chaplains, it’s not like someone from the civilian world. He speaks a language the Pentagon understands.”

According to Don Brodsky, chair of the JWB Service to Jewish Military Committee, the JCC Movement, JCC Association and JWB Jewish Chaplains Council can be proud of mantel of leadership that is passing to Elson.

“He brings to bear deep familiarity with our Jewish values and teachings, which when combined with his 35 years of service in one of the great institutions of our country, the U.S. Marine Corps, gives him a deep well of values and experience to lead JWB into its second hundred years,” Brodsky says.

“We are in the very best of hands.”

Elson grew up in Mexico City. His mother’s family moved there in the 1920s from Poland and his grandfather is a founding member of Mexico City’s Centro Deportivo Israelita, or JCC. His father, a former Marine from Detroit, was vacationing in Mexico when he met Elson’s mother.

Three institutions dominated his upbringing: an English-speaking Conservative congregation in Mexico City, his American school, and spending every Sunday at the JCC playing basketball or other activities, or visiting the “amazing” library there.

Elson’s rabbi served as a mentor, and he knew that he wanted to become a rabbi. But the rabbi encouraged him to join the military first, to become a Navy chaplain to get experience. Elson followed that advice, first attending Yeshiva University and then getting smicha (ordination) from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He joined the Navy chaplain student program upon entering rabbinical school and two weeks after ordination he came on active duty boarding a plane to Okinawa, his first duty station.

He planned only a three-year stint with the Navy and then hoped to find a small congregation somewhere. But 35-years later, he’s found the chaplaincy as rewarding as any pulpit could be.

He’d like to see more Jewish youth go into the chaplaincy and recruiting has to start younger than rabbinic school. So many Jews today are proud to see their sons and daughters make aliyah and to serve in the IDF, says Elson. He sees that as a great thing to do. But Jews need to see with equal importance the value of serving in their own country’s military. Leaving the protection of your rights as Jews under the U.S. Constitution is “too important” to leave to someone else, according to Elson.

“It’s a U.S. Marine, soldier, sailor and airman who is doing that,” he says. “And that’s every bit as noble a cause as supporting the Jewish state.

And getting that message across is as noble a goal as any one you’d want to tackle in a 35-year military career.

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