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Sanibel rabbi recalls his time in the Air Force

By Staff | Nov 23, 2016

Rabbi A. James Rudin



An Air Force veteran, who believes his story is no different from other chaplains who served in the military, remembers the challenge of dealing with people who were young, something not usual in a civilian congregation.

Born in Pittsburgh, Rabbi A. James Rudin’s father, a dentist, was called to active duty in the summer of 1941, leading to the family’s move to Virginia. The family rented a house in Alexandria, Va., which was thought at the time to be only for a year. Later that year, Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the stay extended for six years to 1947, when his father was “separated from the Army” from active duty.

Rudin recalls spending time at Fort Belvoir, just south of Alexandria while his father ran dental clinics, during the war when Jewish children his age in Europe were being rounded up and killed in the Holocaust.

“Here I was with my brother in the safety of the United States. My father was a major in the Army and later got promoted to lieutenant colonel,” he said. “We would go out on weekends and go to the Officer’s Club and go swimming, play pool and ping pong and go to the movies. It’s very pleasant and, of course, at that time the war was going on. I always like to say had I been born in Transylvania, instead of Pennsylvania, I would not be here. Any Jewish kid born in the 1930s in Europe, a million and a half was murdered. So I don’t take my life for granted. Especially 1942, ’43, ’44 and into ’45, particularly 1944, that was the worst year of the Holocaust. Here I was a carefree kid going to school in Alexandria.”

His brother, also a dentist, was assigned to the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg repairing broken jaws and broken teeth.

“All of my male relatives on both sides – uncles and cousins – all wore uniforms and were all over the world,” Rudin said. “That was typical of World War II. I remember growing up in the Washington area – uniforms everyone. If they weren’t in uniform, they were working for the government during the war.”

After his father left the service, they remained in Virginia where Rudin attended second grade through high school. Once Rudin finished college and five years in rabbinical school, nine years after high school, there was a self imposed draft on clergy to go into the military. He said the government could not legally draft clergy back then, but the church bodies could.

“There was a quota that had to be met. Between 1950 and 1969 over 400 rabbis went into the service and I was lucky that I was sent oversees,” Rudin said of joining the Air Force. “It was exciting for me to go to Asia to Japan and Korea.”

He spent two years in Asia as a chaplain where he conducted sabbath services.

In Japan, enlisted officers and personnel could come with their families.

“On our base we had kindergarten through high school (students) and we had American teachers who came over. It was a medium sized American town. We had a library, movie theater, schools, hospital. You had everything that you would have had in the United States,” he said. “It was like living in little America.”

The joy for Rudin was going off base and getting to know the Japanese people and their culture.

Korea, on the other hand was different, and often times difficult because it was a combat zone.

“When you have families together and kids, it’s normal. They stay usually for three years in Japan and then they go back. In Korea, it was 13 months and you came without your family,” he said. “You had to wear your uniform during waking hours, whereas in Japan once you were off duty you could go into civilian clothes.”

Without family, many were lonely and worried about their family back in the states. Rudin said his work as a chaplain in Korea was very intense.

“You did not know from one day to another if there was going to be an outbreak of hostilities,” he said. “The role of a chaplain was very different in Korea. We did not have email, Twitter, Skype, WiFi. I made one phone call to my parents in two years. The way we communicated was, of course, by letter and little magnetic tapes that would go by airmail. At least you could hear people’s voices.”

Emotional, spiritual and psychological tensions were greater, Rudin said, in Korea.

Rudin shared the same facility, the sanctuary, for their services, as well as personnel and support staff.

“Professionally I got to know ministers and priests, the pastors who were in the military and they got to know me. That sent me into my work in interreligious in civilian life,” he said for the International Jewish Committee. “We were never comprised to do a prayer, service, liturgy or ritual that was not authentically ours. We worked together, but everyone was authentic.”

Another part of his work included doing services for the Atomic Bomb Casuality Commission at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rudin said their whole job was to see the affects of the atomic bomb on a group exposed to the radiation and a group that was not. It was shut down in 1975.

During his service, he is most proud of his project, Operation Matzo Balls. He brought guys from Korea in a plane for Passover, so they could have a Seder meal in Jewish homes in Japan.

“They were so glad to get out of Korea, wear civilian clothes, have home hospitality and travel around,” he said, which lasted for eight days in 1961. “Every chaplain has a special project they are interested in.”

After leaving the service, Rudin went into civilian congregations before traveling to New York in 1968 to 2000 for the American Jewish Committee to work in interreligious affairs. Before retiring he was the interreligious affairs director affording him the opportunity to meet John Paul II 11 times and Pope Benedict XVI.

“My job was basically to build positive relationships between Christians and Jews not only in the United States, but for the world,” he said. “I got to know the Christian communities very well. I credit that to my two years in this intimate contact with Christian chaplains in Asia.”