(RNS) — Seventy-five years ago this week, a German U-boat torpedoed the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester, carrying nearly 900 soldiers across the Atlantic for battle in the European theater. In the ensuing chaos of those pre-dawn hours, 230 service members were able to find safety thanks in great part to four men: a rabbi, two Protestant ministers and a Catholic priest, who served as the ship’s chaplains.
Survivors described how Rabbi Alexander D. Goode; the Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist; the Rev. John P. Washington, a Catholic; and the Rev. Clark V. Poling, who was ordained in the Reformed Church in America, recited prayers and offered solace as the Dorchester began to take on water.
The explosion knocked out its electrical system and, in the dark, the four men helped calm the troops and organize an evacuation. They were last seen huddled together, linking arms and singing hymns as they went down with the ship.
Theirs is a story of patriotism and self-sacrifice. Thirty years ago, a unanimous act of Congress established Four Chaplains Day, as a reminder each Feb. 3 of the military’s unsung heroes: faith leaders who guide our troops during their darkest hours.
Decades later, military chaplains tear up when they speak of these four men. I know, because I work with dozens of rabbis around the world who are embedded with U.S. service members. As deputy director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a program of the Jewish Community Center Association of North America, I support those chaplains as they support our troops.
Few will face a wrenching decision like the one made aboard the Dorchester, but each can imagine the thoughts racing through those chaplains’ minds on that dark, cold morning on the Atlantic.
They never met Rabbi Goode or his fellow chaplains who perished alongside him, but they mourn their deaths, just as each feels the sting of the loss of their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines. To serve in the military is to be part of a family, to grieve when that family grieves, and to stand alongside those closest to the trauma.
I’ve learned a lot about the military in recent years: policies and procedures, ranks and terminology, and other aspects of troops’ lives that help me bridge the military-civilian divide. I’ve learned how to go to a base, speak with base leadership, and advocate for the chaplains. I’ve even experienced a military evacuation.
I will never fully grasp, however, the loneliness and intensity that comes with the job, and how it binds our chaplains to the men and women they serve, to Jewish lay leaders, other chaplains of all faiths, and to the larger military family.
Rabbis who serve can tell you about living in isolated communities around the world. They can tell you stories of performing “Tashlich,” the High Holy Day ritual of symbolically casting away their sins, off the side of an aircraft carrier, or of conducting a Passover seder in Iraq or Afghanistan.
They will describe their preparations for war, and the psychological and physical demands that they and other service members face as they confront evil and make decisions no one should be forced to make.
Yet despite those risks, most could not imagine doing anything else, and each has their own story of how they came to serve. For some, this is where they felt their rabbinate needed to be, and that the warriors are the Jews they must support. Others enlisted after major world events, such as the attacks on 9/11.
No matter what brought them to the military chaplaincy, each has made it their life’s work to understand and advocate for the unique needs of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, ministering not only to Jews but to service members of all faiths. And each carries on the legacy of Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, and Revs. George L. Fox, John P. Washington and Clark V. Poling.
I am privileged to work with Jewish military chaplains, to bring their stories to our greater Jewish community, and to help them feel less alone in moments of need. As we remember the outstanding sacrifice of the four chaplains, we should remember, and honor, how deeply this work matters still today.
(Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky is the deputy director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a program of JCC Association of North America. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)