G. I. Jews: Rabbi talks about being a female chaplain in the military

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Rabbi Bonnie Koppell became a rabbi in the 1970s when it wasn’t common for women to do such a thing, then in the last few years of the decade she joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain and traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

Koppell says she knew she wanted to be a rabbi since the age of 11, and it’s still a career that she is excited to wake up and do every day. She grew up in Brooklyn, NY in a family that was involved in synagogue life. She attended a college in the ’70s that was accepting of her career choice.

“At the time there were so few of us that it was very special,” Koppell says of female rabbis at the school. “Our male colleagues were probably a little jealous that we were always being interviewed and asked to speak. They’re being there was taken for granted and ours was seen as special and exceptional.”

In 1978 she saw a recruiting poster at her school that caught her eye. She grew up near what was then the U.S. Army Chaplain School and was always intrigued with what was happening on that campus. The next year she raised her hand and swore into the Army and began Chaplain Officer Basic Training.

“Interestingly, chaplains are there to be spiritual and moral guides to all troops,” Koppell says. “You are not there specifically to serve exclusively your denomination… We all take care of all soldiers. We are a first stopping point for any kind of issues or personal concerns whether it’s struggles going on in family life or within the command.”

There are chaplains for many different faiths, and they are all there to be counselors for the soldiers. Their second responsibility is to lead religious services and ritual opportunities within their own religions.

Koppell traveled to Iraq twice for Passover and to Afghanistan for Hanukkah. She says the soldiers were always touched to find that someone flew from the States just to spend the holiday with them.

“It was a beautiful thing because you would have a private sitting next to a captain who maybe normally would never interact on a personal basis,” Koppell says. “It created an instant community. One of the special satisfactions was to leave knowing I planted the seeds of a community.”

The rabbi says she learned the difference between wants and needs in her service. She was able to understand the importance of gratitude and appreciation which is the foundation of the religious life. When it comes to people being divided because of varied opinions and perspectives, she says listening is they key to understanding.

“Rabbis like to say why do we have two ears and one mouth? Because we should listen twice as much as we speak,” Koppell says.

For more stories similar to this one, watch the PBS special, “G. I. Jews,” which remembers the 550,000 Jewish men and women who served in WWII. It is now available for streaming here.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell: Served in military

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