Shortly before the start of the High Holidays, Rabbi Irving Elson concluded a historic 35-year career serving his country. Elson retired on September 29 as deputy chaplain of the United States Marine Corps — the second-highest position in the Marine Corps chaplaincy. He is the first Jew to hold that position.
“The most important part of the ceremony was the tribute and recognition of my wife and kids who have gone on this journey with me,” Elson said the morning after his retirement.
Elson’s journey was marked by milestones for Jews in the US military, particularly during the Iraq War. When the war began in 2003, he was the only Jewish chaplain serving with the military in Iraq. He held the first Shabbat service during the war, as well as the first Passover seder.
Rabbi Harold Robinson, the director of the Jewish Welfare Board, which certifies and endorses rabbis as military chaplains, calls Elson’s career extraordinary — “in many ways, heroic, literally by any definition of the word.”
As Jews around the world celebrate the new year 5777, Elson can remember a High Holiday season when life and death literally hung in the balance, when he led Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in Iraq, punctuated by mortar fire. And earlier, during the Battle of An Nasiriya in 2003, Elson’s own life was saved by his bodyguard, Robert Page, who was honored with a Bronze Star.
‘Elson’s career has been heroic, literally by any definition of the word’
In the years since Elson’s return from Iraq, his role has included advising the Jewish Welfare Board and paving the way for the next generation of Jewish military chaplains. Throughout his military service, whether in Iraq or at the Pentagon, he has focused on providing spiritual sustenance for Jews in the military. Soon, as a civilian, he will take over for Robinson as the Jewish Welfare Board’s director.
“With sailors and Marines who are Jewish, I’ll interact as a rabbi,” Elson said in a phone call from the Pentagon two weeks before his retirement. “‘What [are you doing for] Shabbat, how can we help you, what are you doing for the holidays? I’m doing a Friday night service here.’ We try to give Jewish personnel a rich, meaningful Jewish life within the parameters in the service.”
Elson retired with the rank of captain, after serving two and a half years as deputy to the chief chaplain of the Marines, Rear Admiral Brent W. Scott.
Elson began his time in the military in the Navy, but spent the second half of his career as a Navy chaplain serving with the Marines. In what Elson agreed was serendipity, the Marine Deputy Chaplain for Reserve Matters is a fellow rabbi (and fellow Iraq War veteran), Jon Cutler.
“It wasn’t planned that way,” Elson said. “The Navy gives great opportunities based on talents, not faith tradition… [It] just really shows, regardless of whether you’re a rabbi, a priest or an imam, if you work hard, [chaplains are] able to rise to the same position on a competitive path.”
Elson originally intended to stay in the Navy for only a short time.
“I wanted to serve my country and pay back the US for what it has done for me and my family,” he said.
His own father was a veteran from Detroit, his mother from Mexico, where she had immigrated from Poland in 1922. Elson’s parents met in Mexico when his father vacationed there after leaving the military. Elson was born and raised in Mexico City.
“I wanted to get a little experience, join the Navy for three years, serve my country, then get a regular job,” Elson said.
Instead, it became his regular job.
An irregular ‘regular’ job
Elson joined the military as a rabbi ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“I had just a very, very caring rabbi growing up,” Elson recalled. “He was just a great role model for me.”
Reflecting on his career as a rabbi in the military, he said, “On one hand, like any rabbi, I can look at certain individuals I’ve touched, changed lives, introduced to Judaism — any rabbi could say that. The only difference is, I was able to do that with individuals being not in a typical synagogue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or New York City. I was able to touch them when they were deployed overseas.”
According to the Department of Defense, there are 1,351 Jews currently serving in the Navy and 564 in the Marines, together with 1,760 in the Army and 1,046 in the Air Force, for a total of 4,721 in the US military (not including Jews serving in the Coast Guard).
“Usually, we say 1.7 percent of the military is Jewish,” Elson said.
With their time at sea, the Navy and Marines have endured unique challenges.
“I’m in a helicopter, from one ship to another, a ‘Holy Helo,’” Elson said, using a Navy nickname. “I’ll do services. Usually, when a rabbi goes from one ship to another, it’s called a ‘Kosher Copter.’ It’s getting to know our people, the conditions they’re in.”
This extends to sleeping on the same hard metal ship surface, or deckplate, as the sailors.
“There’s a lot of talking,” Elson said. “In the Navy, it’s the deckplate mentality… We spend time walking around, talking to people, Marines… ‘How are you doing, what are you concerned with, what keeps you up at night?’”
He noted, “If you live and work and serve, interact daily with your people, you get to know them,” and added that rabbis who are military chaplains interact with their congregations 24-7.
Given the small percentage of Jews in the military, finding a minyan can be difficult.
‘When it’s time for Shabbat, you might be the only Jew who wants to take time out. You have to want it’
“[You might be] one of only three on your ship,” Robinson said. “When it’s time for Shabbat, you might be the only Jew who wants to take time out. You will be granted time to observe and acknowledge, but you have to want it.”
He said that the amount of people for Shabbat services could range from six or seven to “maybe 20, 25.”
The role of rabbis like Elson is therefore crucial. Elson said his wife Fran has helped him a great deal.
“As a rebbetzin, she is a big part of creating a Jewish community,” he said. “I can’t tell you all the extra Shabbat meals, Passover seders she put together for Jewish sailors and Marines.”
But there was a time when Elson was all on his own as a spiritual leader during some of the toughest moments in recent US military history.
Armed with a combat kiddush cup
It was Wednesday, March 19, 2003, the day after Purim. Elson entered Iraq from Kuwait, with his battalion of 700 Marines. The British had captured the port of Basra. Elson and his battalion were positioned further west, and moved up the middle of the country.
“One day flowed into the next,” he said.
But one particular day was unique as Elson held the first Shabbat service in Iraq during the war — at a small town that had been Abraham’s birthplace, and thus, arguably, the birthplace of Judaism.
“It was kind of symbolic,” Elson said. “It was wonderful, that even in the middle of combat, when we were always scared, tired, hungry, we were able in the operation to pause and set up a Shabbat service.”
“Not a lot of people came, but it was a pretty special time,” he said. “It also reinforced, as a Jew and a rabbi, that no matter where in the world, or what you’re doing, Shabbat comes, Shabbat is Shabbat.”
The spiritual milestone was followed by a dangerous week. Elson’s battalion crossed the Euphrates River and participated in the bloody Battle of An Nasariya before advancing to the city of Hillah and the capital of Baghdad.
‘Even in the middle of combat, when we were scared, tired, hungry, we were able to pause and set up a Shabbat service’
It was during this battle that Elson’s bodyguard, Robert Page, saved him from being a casualty.
US military chaplains are unarmed, per Geneva Convention regulations. But they are each accompanied by an assistant, or Religious Program Specialist (RPS). Elson called his RPS, Page, “one of the best” in the Navy.
“I’m a big guy, I’m happy he’s a pretty big guy,” Elson said. “I’m 6’1, he’s 6’7 or 6’8, a pretty solid guy, very good with a weapon, what you want when going into combat.”
Page’s height would help him cover Elson from danger during the Battle of An Nasariya.
In an article on the Navy website, Page said that while Elson was “ministering to the wounded,” he and the rabbi “came under fire from a bus full of Iraqi soldiers who were using innocent civilian passengers as human shields.”
“I heard a slapping noise as bullets came in and hit the ground nearby,” Page is quoted as saying in the article. “I saw one shot hit the ground near the rabbi’s head and said ‘That’s it, let’s go.'”
He told the Navy, “I did the best I could to get the rabbi down as low as I could to protect him, while the rest of the unit returned fire and tried to flank the enemy soldiers.”
For saving his chaplain’s life, Page, a devout Christian, was awarded the Bronze Star with a “V” for valor — the third-highest decoration in the military — on January 23, 2004. Elson pinned the medal on Page.
Elson said that Page actually saved his life several times, “in combat operations, pretty intense firefights.”
That first tour of duty, which lasted eight months from 2002 to 2003, might have been enough for some. But Elson would return for six months in 2004.
This time, he would serve with a higher echelon of command, during the Battle of Fallujah. He served during the High Holidays, and observing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the midst of a war prompted some introspection.
“I was a little more focused as a rabbi,” Elson said. “On one hand, it’s hard, intense. On the other hand, it’s a very moving experience. The prayers mean so much more. The prayers for the High Holidays are pretty intense to begin with.”
‘”Who shall live and who shall die,” it really means something when there’s rocket fire, mortars going off outside’
For instance, he said, “Unetanneh Tokef, ‘on Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die,’ it really means something when there’s rocket fire outside, mortars going off outside. It was intense, very, very meaningful, perhaps the most meaningful High Holidays I ever led.”
Since his return from Iraq over a decade ago, Elson’s roles have focused more on the administrative side, and on the future of Jews in the military.
The future of the Jewish military peoplehood
For the last seven to 10 years, Elson has served as an adviser to the Jewish Welfare Board, which he describes as the oldest institution in the US devoted exclusively to Jews in the military.
“He has been a source of great wisdom and expertise on that as the senior rabbi, active-duty, in the Navy,” Robinson said.
More recent years saw both Elson and the Navy in general make history: Elson was named deputy chaplain for the Marine Corps, and Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben was named the first female Chief of Chaplains for the Navy (which oversees the Marines). Kibben’s deputy is Scott, the Chief of Chaplains for the Marines.
Kibben and Scott “are two of the most inspiring [leaders] I have ever worked with,” Elson said.
Robinson said that Elson has provided an inspiration himself in ensuring continuity on the deckplates.
“The biggest thing [is that he] served as a mentor to so many younger Jewish chaplains,” Robinson said. “That’s his mentorship role… to help create the next generation of Jewish military chaplains.”
And so it is a good time for Elson to retire from the military. For the New Year, he will take a month and a half off. But at the end of November, he’ll be back on duty as director of the Jewish Welfare Board.
“He’s been around the organization a long time,” said Robinson, who is retiring as director. “I expect that when he comes in, on one hand, it will be quite seamless. He already knows the job, the players, what’s going on.”
And, he added, “I think he’ll bring a new burst of energy and insight. I think he’ll take the Jewish Welfare Board to a higher level of service for Jews in the military, and a higher level of public awareness to the entire American Jewish community.”
The motto of the US Marine Corps is “Semper fidelis” — always faithful. Even after retiring as deputy chaplain of the Marines, Irving Elson will continue to strive to live up to their motto, for both his country and his religion.