Is there something you always carry on you, even if it’s seen better days?
Project coordinator: Rachel Bachrach
Illustrations: Menachem Weinreb
In August of 1977, I was commissioned as a lieutenant in the United States Army. I was just about to receive semichah, and I served as chaplain. For six weeks, I was stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York, in a cohort of 100 Christian chaplains. Major Menner was assigned to command us.
I was in no shape for basic training. I repeatedly embarrassed myself on the obstacle course, and the major cursed me with repulsive language. Violating military protocol, I demanded that he speak to me without cursing. To his credit, the major said nothing.
Each morning, a different colonel began class by sharing a joke with the chaplains. The jokes were always of extremely offensive nature. After a couple of days, I learned that this behavior was “normal.” Thereafter, I again violated military protocol by arriving ten minutes late each day to avoid the offensive joke.
When our training concluded, Major Menner invited us to a formal dinner where we were to appear in dress uniforms. Still in kollel, I asked the major where I could rent one.
To my surprise, he replied, “Rabbi, you know I am not very religious. When you told me on the obstacle course to speak appropriately to you, I said to myself, ‘Chaplains are all hypocrites. They’re just like the rest of us. Who does this guy think he is?’ But then I saw that you came late to every class to avoid the inevitable obnoxious joke. No other chaplain did that. I may be a crusty officer, but I saw that you walked the walk. I will be honored to have you wear my uniform to the dinner!”
As a chaplain, I was given a Geneva Conventions card, which the army gives to all medical and religious personnel who serve in or accompany armed forces. In the event of my capture, this card advised the enemy that I was not a combatant and was to be treated for wounds and respected as an army officer.
I keep that card in my wallet to this day to remind me to always walk the walk.
Rabbi Meyer H. May is the executive director at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museums of Tolerance.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 860)
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