Air Force rabbi 'one of her kind'

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Alexander W. Riedel
  • Airman 1st Class Alexander W. Riedel
Minutes before sunset on Friday, she lowers her head and covers her face in prayer. Her hands are illuminated by the faint glow of the Shabbat candles, each flame representing and honoring a family member.

As the week comes to a close, Capt. Sarah Schechter, the Jewish chaplain of the 89th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Md., regularly invites the base community to join her family for a traditional Jewish Shabbat dinner, as a way to share not only her culture, but also to offer an opportunity for communal meeting.

Her purpose is to break barriers, open doors and help people understand her faith. And that's her job.

After 40 years of women serving as military chaplains, Schechter is the first, and to this day the only woman to serve as a rabbi in the Air Force.

"Frankly, I could be the hundredth in my job," she said. "It doesn't matter to me because I'm just doing my best like anyone else. I don't know if I would see myself as a trailblazer - I'm an officer, I'm a rabbi, and I want to do my best to represent the military and Judaism in the best light possible. I'm grateful to the women in the chaplaincy who preceded me because I truly stand on the shoulder of giants."

Growing up in Greenwich Village, New York, Schechter's family was deeply rooted in the Jewish faith and culture. Yet, even though her father was a rabbi, she never dreamt of becoming a "teacher of the Torah," until her mother suggested the possibility in 1999.

Today, women are accepted as rabbis in all denominations, except Orthodox Judaism, and their numbers are growing. But few ever join the military. Schechter's decision to join, however, was easy to make, she said, when during the fourth year of rabbinical school, her world changed dramatically.

"I joined the military because of September 11th," she said. "Within seconds of the attack on our country, the military suddenly stopped being an undefined culture I was vaguely familiar with and their mission became absolutely clear -- protection of our country, protection of our loved ones, protection of our very lives."

Schechter could not remain on the sidelines. A sense of duty as a New Yorker, and more importantly as an American, would not let her rest.

"I felt a great sense of compassion toward our service members - though I knew not a single one," she said. "I knew they carried a huge burden on their shoulders, and I wanted, as a Jew and as a future rabbi, to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. The next day, Sept. 12, I called the recruiter and the rest is history."

Choosing between branches was equally easy, said the captain. After attending the same rabbinic school, she again decided to follow in her father's footsteps into the blue.

"I ultimately joined the Air Force because my father was an Air Force chaplain in 1960," she said. "He always spoke well of his experience and that had a huge influence on my decision."

Even though the civilian Jewish population in the U.S. is small, currently hovering at about 2 percent, according to a report by the North American Jewish Data Bank at the University of Connecticut -- with an even smaller number in the military, less than 40 Jewish chaplain rabbis are spread thin across the services, keeping Schechter and her colleagues in demand especially during Jewish holidays.

"I'm a Jew and I'm from New York, but I also raised my hand to care for a specific community, the military, where Jews make up a tiny percentage of the whole population," Schechter said. "During the Jewish holidays, when the culture around me is 'business as usual,' I am more aware of my minority status. On the other hand, while no one thinks of the military in this way, the military itself is a minority culture and there are times when I feel most comfortable being among those who live and understand it."

Part of her mission is representing Judaism and serving as a link between faiths, Schechter said.

"When people first learn I am a female rabbi, some are fascinated, others are excited," Schechter said. "Sometimes I am the first Jewish person they have ever met or they did not know a woman can be a rabbi. But as a citizen, I want people to see that I'm somebody who loves their country and the people who I'm working with"

Schechter's service, however, is essential because chaplains act, not only as religious leaders, but also as counselors, teachers and most of all confidants, who can assist military members of all faiths and offer privileged communication to all Airmen. Her door is always open, Schechter said, whether Airmen and their families deal with stress and anguish at home or on the job.

"Strong relationships and active participation in a caring community are absolutely vital to spiritual as well as physical wellness," Schechter said. "To contribute to this, my husband and I host a weekly dinner in our home for all military and their families. We spend time observing the special rituals and prayers, but the evening is also to provide a home-cooked meal and a caring community for all; a home away from home, regardless of faith or no faith."

Her military duty frequently requires sacrifice from the wife and mother.

"Unfortunately, world events sometimes necessitate being away from home for a lengthy time," Schechter said. "As a result, the family does take a hit. But that's why helping military members and families with their relationships is my number-one priority."

The hardest time leaving was the first, Schechter said. The morning of her departure for Iraq in 2007 is still etched in her mind.

"It was still dawn and I handed my 1-year-old, still-nursing daughter to my husband," she said. "I grabbed my rucksack, duffel bag and went downstairs to the waiting taxi."

As she looked up from the street just before entering the cab, she could see her husband standing in the window, holding her daughter in his arms. Trying to catch a glimpse of her loved ones in the muted morning light, she paused.

"With our eyes we said 'goodbye,'" Schechter said. "It was a powerful moment for me and my family, but it was also one of the most common experiences of humanity - thousands before us had to leave their family to go off to war. I just knew I had to stay focused on my job."

From the very beginning, her husband, Joe Charnes, was supportive of her decision and stood behind her service, Schechter said.

"My family is proud of my service and in their own way, they are proud of their service, as dependents, as well," Schechter said. "Work and family balance is something everyone struggles with nowadays. We're living in very dangerous times and it requires special sacrifice on everyone's part, and this is my part."

Trying to translate pain into strength, Schechter said she directs her focus on her mission as a military chaplain - to help other people's sons and daughters in harm's way.

"We go where they go, we live where they live, we are suffering where they are suffering and we are celebrating where they are celebrating," she said.

Schechter again began her travels - leaving on her sixth deployment to celebrate Passover with troops, leaving her family, once again, to be there for her Airmen.

"We are all different, but I'm here to help," she said. "I'm motivated to be here. I joined because I deeply care about service members and what they do for our country. I serve out of loyalty to this country and out of devotion to my fellow service members. I think my units know this and appreciate that despite our differences."

Schechter said she plans on continuing her service and on staying with the Air Force for years to come. After all -- she is one of a kind.