Rabbi gathering flock from troops, civilians
June 20, 2009
One of the U.S. Army’s newest chaplains in Europe is trying to build a congregation and a sense of community for a faith that has relatively few numbers compared to other religions.
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Avi Weiss said although his first priority as a Jewish chaplain based in Heidelberg, Germany, is as a deputy commander in Installation Management Command-Europe’s chaplain corps, he also plans to reach as many Jewish soldiers and Jewish Department of Defense civilians as possible.
"I want to be a resource to people," Weiss said. "People can call me about questions or if there are issues about observances."
IMCOM-Europe officials said that Weiss may be the first Jewish chaplain at his level in Europe in at least 10 years.
He arrived here in March, but deployed to Afghanistan for about three weeks in April.
Weiss said he is trying to reach out to soldiers via a newsletter called Kol Torah and by contacting members of the Jewish communities around Army garrisons in Europe. So far, 150 soldiers have signed up for the newsletter.
But the Orthodox rabbi admits that covering so much territory is a daunting task. He said one of his goals is to travel to every Army garrison in Europe within a year.
He was to head to Wiesbaden recently for a change of command ceremony for a Jewish officer who felt it was very important to have a rabbi lead the invocation.
Weiss said he also hopes to meet with Jewish soldiers based at Wiesbaden.
"It was important to me because every single event in the Army starts out with a benediction … about 99 percent of the time that is from a Christian chaplain," Capt. Joseph Billingsley said.
"I wanted to have that Jewish chaplain because I’m Jewish."
Billingsley, the operations officer for the 102nd Signal Battalion, was to take command of the 255th Signal Detachment.
"I’ve been in Europe and Iraq for the past five years and there are a number of Jewish soldiers and American civilians who would like to be more active (in Judaism). I think there is a great need (for a rabbi)," Billingsley said.
Weiss is trying to bridge that geographic hurdle with other activities as well, such as a Rosh Hashanah retreat for Jewish troops and DOD civilians in mid-September at the Bad Sobernheim camp, which is run by the Central Jewish Agency for Germany.
"This is my pride and joy," Weiss said of the retreat, which would mark the Jewish New Year.
"I see it as a way to reach out for Rosh Hashanah."
Weiss said he might plan a retreat for Yom Kippur — the Jewish Day of Atonement — which falls about a week after Rosh Hashanah.
The rabbi also has contacted Jewish organizations in Germany, such the Jewish School of Higher Learning in Heidelberg.
He attended a retreat that the school held last weekend and has asked it to co-sponsor the Rosh Hashanah retreat.
"We benefit when there is local interaction with local Jews as well," Weiss said.
That interaction has even included his playing matchmaker by introducing Jewish single soldiers to local Jewish girls.
"As a rabbi, I was happy to see people were looking in their own faith ... for dates," Weiss said.
IMCOM-Europe’s top chaplain, Col. Doug Kinder, said one goal of having Weiss in Europe is to help him find lay leaders who can lead Jewish services and find other resources for Jewish soldiers and civilians near the garrisons.
"Part of his responsibilities I would see for him is to build a congregation," Kinder said.
But Judaism isn’t the only faith that has a shortage of chaplains or resources in Europe, Kinder added.
Finding someone to tend to the needs of Muslims, Wiccans — a growing religion — and other religions is also difficult, he said.
"We look up every option we can think of, and hopefully there is something in the community that they can plug into," Kinder said.
"Generally if you look hard enough, you can find something."
Those interested in contacting Weiss can e-mail him at email@example.com