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Highest ranking Jewish military chaplain to head JWB Jewish Chaplains Council

Marla Cohen
Communications Manager
[email protected]

For immediate release

Rabbi Irving Elson, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the highest-ranking Jewish chaplain in the U.S. military when he retired in September, has become the new director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council.

The nearly 100-year-old organization is the only agency that endorses Jewish chaplains from all streams of Judaism to the military. It is also the oldest Jewish endorsing agency, founded to serve the needs of Jews heading into service at the outset of World War I.

A U.S. Navy Captain, Elson was serving as Deputy Chaplain of the United States Marine Corps when he retired after a 35-year career. He assumes the directorship from Rabbi Harold Robinson, who served the organization for the past 10 years.

“As a Navy Chaplain who was endorsed by JWB, and drew support from it during my service, I am honored to be in the position of leading it into its next century,” says Elson. “For the past 35 years I knew I could always count on JWB to provide support me for as a chaplain and for the thousands of Jewish personnel in the service. I consider it now a privilege to continue this crucial work.”

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, whose immediate predecessors are, 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.

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.

After the war, JWB’s 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. Today they exist under one banner—Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, with JWB Jewish Chaplains Council remaining a signature program of the agency.

According to JCC Association Vice President David Posner, who oversees JWB, 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 in our military to advocate for their rights, and has worked in partnership with them.

“Rabbi Elson 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,” according to Don Brodsky, chair of the JWB. “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.

He sees JWB working more closely with JCCs as a natural extension of his upbringing and the work that both JCC Association and JWB do today. He expects to see more collaborations, such as Project Welcome Home, a military family outreach program in place at several JCCs.

“JCCs have been supportive of our troops, but we can always do more,” says Elson. “I’m looking forward to planning what that more can be, and how JWB can continue to serve at the highest level, the rabbis who choose to serve our Jewish troops.”

About JCC Association
JCC Association strengthens and leads JCCs, YM-YWHAs and camps throughout North America. As the convening organization of the JCC Movement, JCC Association partners with JCCs to bring together the collective power and knowledge of the JCC Movement. JCC Association offers services and resources to increase the effectiveness of JCCs as they provide educational, cultural, social, recreational, and Jewish identity building programs to enhance Jewish life throughout North America. By supporting the 25,000 Jewish communal professionals who connect with two million JCC participants each year—JCC Association encourages engaged lives of purpose and meaning.
About JWB Jewish Chaplains Council
In 1917, the Jewish Welfare Board began to serve young men entering the military in World War I. Today, as JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a signature program of JCC Association, that work continues: safeguarding the rights, fulfilling spiritual needs, combatting loneliness and isolation and honoring the service of Jewish men and women in the United States armed forces. JWB is a U.S. government-accredited agency for serving the religious and requirements of Jewish military personnel, their families, and patients in VA hospitals, or wherever they serve.


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