In 2008 Commander Joel Newman GS/JTS '76 learned that he had been selected to receive an honorary doctorate from The Jewish Theological Seminary. The only hitch was that at the time of the ceremony Newman, a chaplain for the U.S. Navy, would be with Marine Corps troops in Iraq, the latest in a series of deployments that includes stints in Somalia, Ecuador, Japan, the Arabian Gulf, and Afghanistan.
Even before joining the military, Rabbi Newman was well-traveled. As a student in the Joint Program he spent a year studying abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and later completed his rabbinical training at the Leo Baeck College in London.
Following his ordination he returned to the United States and led congregations in St. Paul, Minn., and Denver, each for six years. Ultimately, however, he wanted to find a different way to minister.
"When you're on a pulpit, you don't have young people coming to you with issues and problems," Newman said. "If they come to talk to you about marriage, they're discussing how to use your facility at the wedding, where to put the flowers, and so on. By contrast, the stuff that I've done for the last 20 years now is really life and death."
After spending a year in the Naval Reserves, Newman opted to go on active duty and, shortly thereafter, received his first deployment. "I got the call on my anniversary," he recalled. "'We're flying you out to Mogadishu for Chanukah.'"
Chaplains live, work, and travel alongside regular military personnel, even undergoing basic training, although they are prohibited from carrying a weapon by the Geneva Convention.
“There’s no valet service,” Newman said. “You have to jump off the helicopter and then walk a mile or two carrying all your equipment to the check-in point. It's one thing to do it when you're in your twenties, but I'll turn 58 this year. You have to be 100 percent; you can't get injured, can't catch a cold. You have to be very, very careful, and I am."
In addition to their ministerial duties, chaplains serve as a vital link between the military command, whom they advise on ethical issues, and the troops on the ground. Consequently, sharing the dangers and rigors of everyday life is indispensable.
"When I was in Afghanistan last October, I sat with the general and discussed how the troops were doing," Newman said. "Most people here don't realize that when you're in a horrible situation, you still have to go to the bathroom, shower, eat, sleep, wash your clothes. What's portrayed on the news here is nothing; it's a thousand times worse."
Even in less trying conditions, establishing a religious presence during a deployment poses challenges, particularly in the Jewish community.
"Often people will try to gather, but if there isn't someone to lead and run things, their resolve can falter. That's a problem for all faiths. But if you publicize that there's a professional coming out, it works. In my case, it's much more complicated, because, instead of being a Conservative rabbi, I have to be a rabbi for everyone. You have people who've never been to a service but their grandmother was Jewish, and then you have someone who's gone to a Jewish daily school. You have to find somewhere in between. Instead of saying, 'Come worship in my style of Judaism,' I look at their style and bring it to them, and that's where I think you truly find success."
While serving as a rabbi is Newman's foremost responsibility, the bulk of his time is spent in counseling military personnel and their families, another task that often requires him to reconcile diverging perspectives.
"The divorce rate for service members under 28 is 85 percent," Newman said. "Cultures are different, family backgrounds are different. To give them the tools to communicate and maybe save the marriage is a huge thing."
After 10 years in Southern California, Newman, his wife, and two daughters moved to Maryland in 2002 for his next assignment: teaching ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy.
"Going back into the university world was wonderful," Newman said. "It's amazing to be with some of the top-level thinkers in the world as they're creating just war theories. They're willing to go out and question what's the best way for a future naval officer to serve his country."
Once his tour at the Naval Academy was completed, Newman and his family returned to California. Throughout his career his family has been supportive, although Newman notes that serving as a chaplain has, in some ways, made their lives easier.
"When you're on a pulpit, you're being scrutinized all the time," Newman says. "You have to live up to a contract, which refers to how well the synagogue is doing financially. In board meetings they're discussing you, your wife, and your future. I thought, 'How much more difficult would it be to sit in a tent in a war zone?'
"The family got used to it; they never complained or said 'I don't like what you do.' We celebrate holidays early or late, and with email you can stay in touch all the time. They know that when I go out on a deployment, it's for the greater good. If I'm not there, there's a real void. I don't think everyone can say that about their jobs."