Lone Army female rabbi called to do it all
HEIDELBERG, Germany — The rabbi warmly welcomes each member of the Jewish military community as the small congregation fills a side room in the Heidelberg chapel for the Friday Sabbath.
Offering the traditional holy day greeting — Shabbat shalom — as the faithful filter in, the rabbi is among only 84 Jewish chaplains serving in uniform among the active and Reserve forces.
But this rabbi is unique even among that select few.
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Bonnie Koppell is the only female Jewish chaplain in the Army and one of only two military-wide.
A reservist from Chandler, Ariz., where she leads Temple Beth Shalom in civilian life, Koppell is the latest member to join the U.S. Army Europe command team as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee. Instead of drilling two weeks a year and one weekend a month, IMAs fulfill all or most of their annual Reserve commitment all at once.
That means for the next month, Koppell is filling in at the Army’s top headquarters in Europe in Heidelberg.
Part of those duties include offering the “thought for the day” during Gen. B.B. Bell’s three-times-a-week staff meetings.
“It’s like a mini-sermon,” she says. On Friday morning, for example, she asked the USAREUR brass to ponder what made a perfect soldier.
A perfect chaplain, she says, for example, “would be constantly out visiting the sick and counseling soldiers and yet always in the office when you need her.”
Her point: “I can’t do it all, but I can die trying.”
Quoting the Jewish writings from the Pirke Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, Koppell points out “it is not your job to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
It’s like the two-minute sit-up section of the Army’s physical fitness test, she says. “They tell you that as a long as you are still attempting to do the sit-up you can keep trying. It’s a good thought for life: No one is perfect but to just keep trying.”
The idea of perseverance and pushing through difficulties is something that has been resonating within Koppell since arriving in Germany last week.
“It was very traumatic to come here,” she says. “I was wearing my BDUs when I got off the plane,” she continues, pointing to the Star of David insignia for Jewish chaplains on her collar.
“To think that so many Jews here were forced to wear this star and what happened to them, well, it’s very emotional.”
Shortly after arriving, she says, she couldn’t help but recall the verse that described God’s anger with Cain for slaying Abel: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
“The word for blood is actually in the plural,” says Koppell, “and most commentators suggest that’s because it’s not just Abel’s blood but also those from future generations that would have come from him.”
To her congregation in Arizona, she says she wrote: “I, too, feel the blood of those generations [from the Holocaust] crying to me from this land.”
Koppell grew up near the then-home to the Army chaplain’s school in Brooklyn, N.Y. She says military service has interested her almost as long as she can remember.
“I was always very curious about what went on there,” she says.
“I also knew I wanted to be rabbi from a very young age. It was a calling. I love Judaism. Being a rabbi gives me a way to study and teach something that I love.”
Those two interests came together in 1978 when, in rabbinical school, she saw a recruiting poster advertising the chaplain candidate program.
Some 25 years later, she says, she “still loves it” although like many reservists, she finds balancing military duty with civilian life can be a challenge.
Of being called to active duty for the first Gulf War in 1991 and then again for a year as part of Operation Noble Eagle after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Koppell says, “I could not do this without the support of the congregation back home. They appreciate the work I am doing.”
Still, she adds, “It’s hard. There was just a death in the congregation and not to be there for the funeral yesterday was very difficult.”
But as the casualties continue to mount in Iraq, with many of the wounded coming to Germany for treatment, Koppell says she is standing by to minister to anyone who needs her help.