The end of our stay in Okinawa, where my wife and I had been staying with our daughter and son-in-law upon the birth of their first child, coincided with the arrival of my son-in-law’s parents. Our brief overlap allowed all us to be present for our granddaughter Calanit’s Simhat Bat, the ceremony in which she was formally welcomed into the community of Israel, and the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people.
As a congregational rabbi in New York for thirty-three years, I have both witnessed and participated in countless Simhat Bat ceremonies. While they are still not as common as the ancient Brit Milah ceremony for boys, they have become an important ritual in welcoming baby girls into the family, and into the Jewish community. Of course, being that it was for my granddaughter, I was, for the most understandable reasons, predisposed to find it moving and meaningful. And it was all that, and more.
But I think that what distinguished this particular Simhat Bat ceremony for me more than anything else was that I have never attended, or participated in, a religious rite-of-passage where there were more non-Jews in attendance than Jews. There have been plenty of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in my synagogue where there was a healthy attendance of non-Jewish friends, family and associates, but it was clear that the dominant context of the event was a Jewish one.
Not so my granddaughter’s Simhat Bat. Other than family, and the relatively few members of the Okinawa Jewish community, the others in attendance – some seventy-five in all – were all fellow chaplains of various Christian denominations and their families, colleagues of my son-in-law Yoni, and members of his battalion and their commanding officers. The ceremony was familiar, but the context was definitely different. I could feel it.
It would be easy to say that it felt strange, but that would not really express what I want to say. What it felt like, it a unique way, was holy.
Here in New York, we Jews live a charmed existence that is virtually unknown outside of this geographical area. There are surely strong and vibrant Jewish communities in other parts of the United States, but the combined Jewish populations of Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan make up something like fifteen percent or more of American Jewry. We have more Jews who don't attend synagogue than most American Jewish communities have Jews.
When a Jewish military chaplain brings a beautiful ceremony like a Simhat Bat to a context like a Marine base in Okinawa, it is nothing less than an act of "kiddush hashem barabbim": sanctifying God’s name in the presence of a public gathering. Most of these people, including the Christian chaplains, have never been exposed to Jewish rituals like a Simhat Bat, much less had a friendship with serious Jews like my daughter and son-in-law. They are not jaded by over-familiarity, nor are they concerned with who the caterer is. They came to celebrate with colleagues and friends, and they left with an enhanced awareness of the beauty of Jewish tradition, and the vital role that family plays in passing on cherished traditions. There is no way to quantify that, and it is certainly true that there is not enough empirical data on chaplains and their experiences to adequately appreciate the impact that they have had on attitudes in the broader Christian world.
But this much I know for sure. The Christian men and women who attended Calanit’s Simhat Bat this week, good and gracious people all who have been wonderful friends to my children, left there with a heightened sense of the beauty of Judaism and its practice. I am, of course, so proud of my daughter and son-in-law. Their service in Okinawa, both to the Jewish community there and to the Marines whose battalion Yoni serves, has been exemplary, and has truly sanctified God’s name here on earth without the martyrdom that we have come to associate with it. Come December, Yoni will be moving on to Annapolis, to assume the position of Jewish chaplain at the United States Naval Academy. The work, though different, will continue.
We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the men and women who serve as Jewish chaplains. Far from family and the comforts of home, they serve both God and country in ways largely unknown to most of us. I know that my children have grown from their experience in Okinawa. I, for sure, and my wife as well, have emerged from their experience with a far greater appreciation of our military, and the sacrifices they make for us all. Let’s make sure that, when we pray for the welfare of the Israel Defense Forces, we pray for our own military as well!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.