Story and photos by Sgt. Christine Samples
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — There’s just not enough rabbis to go around. That’s why the only U.S. military rabbi currently serving in Afghanistan travels regularly from his base at Kandahar Airfield to other military camps here and uses the Internet to reach his congregation. It’s not a conventional role for a rabbi, but it helps him reach more people.
Army chaplain, Lt. Col. Avi Weiss of Chicago, a father of three and grandfather of 11, recently made his first visit to Camp Leatherneck since his December arrival in theater.
He looks younger than his 61 years and has a friendly, approachable manner. His attire consists of the Army uniform and a black yarmulke that miraculously stays on his shaved head with the help of some bobby pins. His eyes rest on each person individually when he’s talking in a group, like an unspoken invitation for each one’s thoughts.
Anyone who wants to jump in the conversation, however, needs to act quickly. Keeping up with Weiss’ train of thought isn’t easy. He jumps from one topic to another and back again. It’s a habit that his wife, Elcya, teases him about often. Fortunately, Weiss stays on topic during services.
Before Shabbat, the Friday evening service observing the Sabbath, Weiss sat on a bench in Leatherneck’s simple, wooden chapel to talk about his ministry.
“Attempting to keep traditional Jewish laws is difficult in this environment,” said Weiss, explaining the shortage of rabbis in the military. “It’s a credit to the military that it does a lot to help someone practice their faith, but it’s still not necessarily the choice environment for someone who wants to live a certain way.”
It may not be a choice environment for some, but the military managed to attract Weiss in 1974 and keep him for 37 years as an active duty and Reserve chaplain. He first joined just for the job, but stayed for the unique opportunity to minister.
“I really enjoy the military,” said Weiss. “I don’t want to be a synagogue rabbi. I enjoy jumping out of airplanes (with the 82nd Airborne Division). I really enjoy being in Afghanistan. You can touch people’s lives in ways you can’t possibly do in other places.”
Weiss joked that because people can’t go downtown on Friday nights, they’re more open to attending services, which makes his job easier.
Although people can’t hang out downtown, Weiss still has his work cut out for him. Schedules here make it difficult for some to attend services. Five came to Shabbat, but Weiss said he concentrates on individuals, not numbers.
The Jewish population in the military falls well below 1 percent according to Department of Defense statistics, but Weiss believes the actual numbers are higher and some just need to know they’re not alone.
“I try to encourage individuals to think about being more involved in their faith,” said Weiss. “I’m not really involved with the Afghanistan war or the issues. I’m more concerned with the individuals here. I can make a little bit of difference in someone’s life; even one person.”
Because he can’t be everywhere, Weiss stays connected with the community through the Internet. He uses email to answer questions and give advice to lay leaders who perform services when no rabbi is available. He also started an online newsletter, Kol Torah, with the help of his wife in Heidelberg, Germany. The newsletter keeps the community here informed of events and educates them on Jewish culture.
So while there may not be enough rabbis to go around, Jewish service members aren’t left on their own. Weiss uses the Internet and travel to make sure they get as much support as possible.