Oldest Jewish endorser of chaplains confronts change
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. near what was then the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Ft. Hamilton. She knew she wanted to be a rabbi. And she knew that she wanted to know what went on behind those walls.
And 38 years ago, when she swore to defend the U.S. Constitution, as both rabbi and chaplain, she combined both of those burning desires.
Koppell, who rose to the rank of colonel, was the first Jewish woman to be accepted to the chaplaincy school. It took JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, which endorses as chaplains rabbis from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements, several years to figure out how to endorse a woman. But it did, and has continued to do so ever since.
After 38 years serving as a chaplain, Koppell retired June 1. She is currently an associate rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona.
Koppel isn’t the only JWB chaplain retiring. Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson, also a colonel, did so on July 1 after just over 31 years of Army service. He is currently director of pastoral care at the Lifebridge Health System.
The chaplaincy is meaningful because “you were really, truly meeting people where they were at and being able to help them,” says Ackerson. “Being a chaplain allows rabbis to serve as positive role models for Judaism to many people who have never met a Jew before.”
And as for serving members of his own tribe?
“You are dealing with a lot of Jews who have felt marginalized from the Jewish community, and giving them a sense of Jewish communal belonging.”
According to both recent retirees, JWB was able to support them in their work. In addition to providing the care packages to Jewish military personnel, food for seders, Torahs in the field, and supplies and educational support that JWB is known for, the organization provides something even greater, according to both rabbis.
“It brings chaplains from all denominations together to work for the common good of Jewish military personnel,” says Ackerson. Koppel notes that JWB operates as a “sounding board and mentorship guide throughout the chaplain’s career, and provides networking opportunities for rabbis serving the most unique population in a most unique rabbinate.”
In addition to the two Army “chaps” who are retiring, Rabbi Irv Elson, a U.S. Navy captain, is also retiring. JWB announced at the JCCs of North America Biennial in May that he would assume the directorship of JWB in November when Rabbi Harold Robinson (above), a former rear admiral, will retire as head of JWB.
Elson is an accomplished chaplain with a great depth of experience, according to Robinson. “JWB will be in extremely good hands when Irv Elson takes this position. He is one of the greatest Jewish chaplains of his, or any generation and he will take JWB to new heights and accomplishments.
“And Irving Elson is one of my personal heroes.”
At the same time, recruiting for new chaplains has kept apace, with three new chaplains representing each major Jewish movement coming on board in the past few years, according to Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky, deputy director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a signature program of JCC Association.
“The retirements represent people serving at very high levels, with a wide range of experience between them,” she says. “They’re a very accomplished group.”
Those who are coming up in the ranks, she notes, are “poised to take leadership roles. They’re beginning to move into the next phases in their careers, and really making an impact.”
As this shift takes place, the plenum that governs JWB, which is composed of representatives from the Rabbinical Assembly, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Rabbinical Council of America (professional groups of the Conservative, Reform and Orthodox movements respectively), plus four active-duty chaplains, will also change. Two longtime members from the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbis Leonard Cahan and Matthew Simon, will leave that organizing body. They will be replaced by Rabbi Gerald Skolnick, a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi Laurence Bazer, a colonel in the Massachusetts National Guard.
Sharofsky says that although JWB is experiencing many changes all at once, all represent the ways in which the organization draws on its strengths and resources as it anticipates the future needs of chaplains.
“It’s a pivotal time for JWB,” she says. “How we draw on our strengths and resources as we anticipate the future needs of chaplains and what sort of vision we create will impact the new generations of chaplains and Jews in the military.”