SUMMER 2019 The Summer of Torah, Hesed, and Charity

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By: Machla Abramovitz

A Community Rabbi’s Journey
As Captain in the U.S. Air Force

Rabbi Major Raphael Berdugo USAF – slim, outgoing, and personable –arrived at Camp Bucca in Iraq at the start of 2009. He was dispatched there at the urgent request of Jewish reservists and active officers stationed there. When he arrived, he found “twenty-five spiritually starved men clamoring for a rabbi.”

A Look at Camp Bucca

From your comfortable living room, it may be difficult to picture Camp Bucca, one of the Iraqi War’s most notorious detention centers. It stood in the southern town of Garma, situated on the Iraq-Kuwaiti border. With temperatures hovering around
125 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, this wind-swept, barren strip of land housed a collection of tents and temporary cinder block dwellings with wooden roofs. They were surrounded by razor-sharp barbed wire. By 2009, the detention center had funneled approximately 100,000 detainees, including nine of the most radical Jihadists on earth. These included some of ISIS’s top commanders such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who spent five years there, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, ISIS’s second in command, senior military leader Haji Bakr, and Abu Qasim, leader of the terrorist organization’s foreign fighters.

Initially established by British forces at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the U.S. Army’s 800th Military Police Brigade together with 400 U.S. Air Forcesecurity troops took charge shortly afterward, renaming the camp after brigade member and fire marshal Ronald Bucca, who perished in the World Trade Center attack. Unlike Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in western Baghdad that was surrounded by high, thick walls, Camp Bucca was an easy target for Iraqi militants launching lethal Iranian-supplied rockets onto the premises.

 “Dealing with these kinds of prisoners, you have a rude awakening about the cruel ways of the world, especially when you are under attack,” Rabbi Berdugo says. “In contrast to this evil surrounding us, we spent a spiritually uplifting Shabbat together. We sang zmirotand prayed – nobody wanted Shabbat to end. The men asked me if I was willing to stay longer, and I said sure.”

When it wastime for Rabbi Berdugo to leave, these young American soldiers (none of whom were Torah-observant) were so appreciative that they held a farewell lunch in the rabbi’s honor, and presented him with tokens of appreciation and farewell gifts. “The experiencewas surreal. I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls.

A Military Chaplain’s Role

It’s been nine years since Rabbi Berdugo, one of six
Torah-observant chaplains working for the U.S. military, was deployed in the Middle East and encountered these kinds of experiences, which he shared with Community Magazineabout six years ago. Today, due to health reasons, he is no longer deployed overseas or elsewhere. However, as a chaplain assigned to JBSA – Lackland in San Antonio, Texas, one of the U.S.’s top military training bases, he has much to tell us about military life, how it has changed over the last decade, and how a Torah-observant Jew meets the challenges of the military, while remaining true to his values and ideals.

The first thing to know about being a chaplain in the military is that this profession is not for every yeshiva musmachinterested in working as a rabbi. For one, it requires specific personality traits. The candidate must be punctual, and cannot be procrastinators. Moreover, loyalty to the institution is highly valued. These qualities made Rabbi Berdugo a good fit for the job.

Furthermore, one must be extraordinarily open-minded and accepting of all kinds of people. "Growing up in Sunderland, England and Marseilles, France – my father was a rabbi – we had people from all backgrounds over at our home. I learned from an early age to be tolerant of others and appreciated that not everyone had the opportunities we had growing up frum.”

The designation of chaplain is generic. Once a chaplain is assignedto a unit or squadron, he becomes theirchaplain, the person to go to, regardless of one’s religious beliefs, for emotional, psychological, and spiritual guidance and support. “If people are comfortable with you because they’ve gotten to know you through their squadron, they are more likely to open up to you, which is what the military wants,” Rabbi Berdugo explains.


Chaplains Help Soldiers with
Mental Health and Spiritual Issues

Most issues that chaplains encounter are relationship-based, or are the result of work-related stress. Over the years, the military has changed: it has become more technical and computerized. Spending time enclosed within cubicles is taxing on the body and the mind. Also, recruits are generally between the ages of 18 to 26 years old; many are unprepared for the rigors of military life. San Antonio is, after all, a boot camp. “We tell them that the Air Force and the military are not for everybody. If it is not for them, usually within two weeks they are home.”

Why would a soldier go to speak to a chaplain and not a health care professional? Even today, there is a stigma attached to seeing a mental health practitioner, and a fear that doing so could adversely affect their career prospects. Rabbi Berdugo is trained to listen and to guide, not to solve emotional problems. Whatever is shared with him stays between him and the soldier who has approached him for help: There are no records kept. If there is a mental health matter, Rabbi Berdugo recommends they see a professional therapist,but the individual ultimately decides whether to follow up on his advice or not. For the most part, a chaplain provides a safe space to enable these young men and women to discuss personal issues without fear of professional consequences.

The issue of Gd does not arise unless the patient brings it up on his own. If they believe in Gd, the chaplain advises them to strengthen their relationship with Gd, but does not say how to go about doing it. "As for Jews, if I feel there is a spiritual spark inside of him or her, obviously I will push the handle to see how far I can go in mekarevingthem. I've had some success. However, generally, I listen more than I speak.”


PTSD in the Military

Over the past decade, the military has seen a marked increase in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide attempts, especially among young recruits. PTSD is a direct consequence of deployment in war zones. Witnessing horrific events can equally affect the young and inexperienced as well as the older, more experienced military personnel. “I had a supervisor with a promising career who was forced to retire because of PTSD. It was that bad,” Rabbi Berdugo recalls.

The military takes these matters veryseriously: To counter possible PTSD challenges, the military works on increasing spiritual resiliency to halt the development of PTSD, and the military also works on suicide prevention. Drug or alcohol addictions, for example, often can indicate a spiritual void. Still, when issues of addictions arise, Gd is never discussed. Instead, the U.S. military encourages strengthening one’s “spiritual pillar,” or “spiritual resiliency.” They explain that some find strength in Gd; some find it in music, and some in volunteer work, among other possibilities.

Does this approach work?

“No. The suicide rate has not dropped; it's increased,” Rabbi Berdugo said.

How does he explain these increases? “Many of today’s young men and women are unprepared for the rigors of military life, especially living in a country where one can do whatever one wants, where one is rarely restricted by rules, and where one is encouraged to have fun and to live for the moment. They are also up against an enemy that believes the opposite. Try to explain to a kid raised in a freedom-loving country that people are willing to die for something they believe in. They don’t get it.”


Challenges for
a Torah Observant Jew in the Military

The demands of the job on Torah observant Jews is challenging in many ways. Fortunately, obtaining kosher food is not one of the challenges: In Qatar, Rabbi Berdugo had his own personal utensils and had access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish, as well as MREs(Meals Ready to Eat) from La’Briute or Meal Mart. The most fundamental challenge is loneliness. While on Active Duty and deployed overseas, families are often left behind as it's not easy for wives and children to tag along. The loneliness is especially acute during Shabbatsand yamim tovim

In that regard, 2009 was an extremely challenging year for Rabbi Berdugo, having been deployed to Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, and Iraq. This was especially true over Pesach, when he was solely responsible for providing Pesach sedarimfor the Jewish men and women stationed there. How one chooses to handle these conditions makes all the difference. Even though living on base is not easy; nevertheless, the rabbi found it spiritually uplifting. “All religious matters revolved around me, and what I could do for the Jewish men and women living there – whether it was Friday night or Yom Kippur services and seudot, or holding a seder. When nothing exists there religiously, you are IT.”

Because the soldiers worked on Shabbat, there were no services then. Subsequently, the father of five spent Shabbat day alone in his room, which he enjoyed. “I felt connected to Hashem more on deployments than I did in Lakewood, where my family lives. Over there – in Qatar and Kuwait – it was just Hashem and me. Then when you return to your community, you appreciate all the more those things you take for granted – minyanim, kosher food, restaurants. You have to be very strong spiritually to undertake that kind of life.”


Appreciation for Our Military

Despite these personal and professional challenges, Rabbi Berdugo values his job immensely. He believes that the average American, as well, appreciates the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. “When strangers see me in uniform, they thank me for my service all the time. I was lunching in a kosher restaurant in San Antonio with three of my colleagues, all in uniform. The waitress told us that our meals were paid for. While in Starbucks, another stranger handed me a gift card and thanked me for my service. After 9/11, people appreciate our service even more because they realize that there are people out there who want to hurt us, and that the military is needed today more than ever to defend our freedoms.”

Rabbi Berdugo is a musmachof Lakewood’s Yeshiva Govoha,
and has taught Torah classes at Yeshiva of Flatbush. Now he teaches basic Torah classes on Sunday mornings, where his impact on students is seen more clearly. He lectures on the existence of Gd, the purpose of life, and what Hashem expects of us. No subject is off-limits. "I don't force anyone to go to my class, but nobody has ever left the class. They tell me that my classes are entertaining. I'm blunt and don’t sugar coat ideas. Some of my students ask if there are mitzvot they can begin doing. I sow seeds. What happens afterward, I don't know. Sometimes I find out; sometimes, I don't."

Rabbi Berdugo has successfully managed to reach out to both civilians and soldiers, helping them to understand Torah, and to cope with challenges faced in everyday life, and while serving in the military. It is no surprise that he is able to speak to all kinds of people, and to help them with their struggles. He comes from a line of fifteen generations of rabbis! May Hashem grant him the strength and continued ability to serve Him and the Jewish people.