A View from the Trenches


Bonnie Koppell’s journey to become the first female rabbi to serve in the U.S. military


Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, near the site of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School, which was then located at Ft. Hamilton, I first contemplated a career as a rabbi in the late 1960s. It was at this time that women were first entering rabbinical schools at Hebrew Union College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The Vietnam War was in full force, and I developed a curiosity about what went on behind those walls, adorned with a cross as well as the symbol of the Jewish Chaplain Corps, a Magen David affixed to the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

With a universal draft in place, the military faced a chronic shortage of chaplains. A chaplain candidate program was initiated, with the goal of recruiting seminary students to try the uniform on for size while still in school, in hopes of attracting them to active duty. In 1976, having graduated from Brandeis University, I entered rabbinical school at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. A recruiting poster on the bulletin board at RRC caught my eye, and the rest, as they say, is history. In order to serve as a military chaplain in any branch of the service, ecclesiastical endorsement is required. The U.S. government does not want to make the determination as to who is or is not a legitimate representative of any particular religious group. Therefore, each denomination establishes an endorsing agency that is charged with interviewing, endorsing, and overseeing military chaplains. The Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) was, at the time, unique in the fact that Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox representatives sat together to decide on each candidate’s qualifications.

The first challenge

One needed sponsorship, though, from a particular group, and there was no Reconstructionist presence to support my application. The Conservative movement stepped forward to plead my cause. To this day, I am uncertain as to why the Orthodox did not veto my request, as their approval of my candidacy represented an implicit acknowledgment of the notion of female rabbis. At my interview, I was questioned closely as to whether or not I really intended to serve. It was suggested that this was merely a feminist campaign for inclusion, but that I was not at all serious about following through. Having served almost 20 years in the Army Reserve, where I currently hold the rank of major, I believe I have adequately demonstrated my commitment.

In 1977, I applied for ecclesiastical endorsement from the JWB and, on January 1, 1978, I received a copy of the letter sent on my behalf to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains indicating that the JWB had granted “ecclesiastical approval for the purpose of entering the chaplain trainee program in the Staff Specialist Branch (Divinity Students) of the Department of the Army.”

In the summer of 1979, I headed to the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Ft. Wadsworth/Ft. Hamilton to complete the six-week Chaplain Officer Basic Course. I was 1 of 4 Jews in a class of 108, and 1 of 3 women. Women had only recently been admitted to the Chaplain Corps, and I was the first Jewish woman to enter the school. Military life is another world, and one that continues to fascinate me. I found the experience to be emotionally difficult. During 10 days at Ft. Dix, we would be awakened at 0400 to stand in formation, where we were unceremoniously commanded, “Right face, forward march.” I wanted to know, “Where are we going? By what route? How long will it take to get there? What are we going to do there?”

I have come to understand the Army’s need for unquestioning obedience to orders, but as a free-spirited young person I cried many tears that summer. Being sensitive to the cold, I would report to these early morning calls with the sleeves of my uniform rolled down. The Drill Sergeant informed me that the uniform requirement was for sleeves to be rolled up. When I complained to one of my classmates that I found this requirement ludicrous, he reacted with horror. “What if you wear your sleeves down, and someone else wears them up? A third person may want to wear them halfway!” The implication was that anarchy would undoubtedly ensue. I figured out pretty quickly that active duty was not going to be for me.

A major political battle

In 1980, The Jewish Almanac noted this accomplishment: “Bonnie J. Koppell—First Jewish Woman Chaplain, a fourth-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, was accepted as the first Jewish woman chaplain candidate by the United States Army, and has the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserves.” Upon graduating from rabbinical school in 1981, I applied for a branch transfer from chaplain candidate to chaplain. This should have been a pro-forma shuffling of paperwork, but it became a major political battle. Suddenly, the implications of endorsing a female candidate came to the fore, and the non-Orthodox elements on the JWB were unwilling to “threaten the unity of the JWB” for a “mere Reservist.” It was made clear to me that if I was willing to commit to active duty, my candidacy would be supported, but otherwise I was put on hold. Thus began a five-year struggle for the cause of female rabbis in the military.

My military career was on hold during this time. Due to an army regulation limiting the number of years one can participate in the Chaplain Candidate Program, I wrote to Rabbi Aaron Landes of the JWB in September 1985 requesting that he expedite my application, which had, by then, languished for four years. This was followed in February 1986 by a letter from CH (LTC) James Bruns, Chaplain Candidate Program Manager, to the JWB. He wrote, “The issue of denominational endorsement for Bonnie Koppell has reached a critical point for this office. Bonnie Koppell entered the Chaplain Candidate Program 22 May 1978 with denominational approval granted by the JWB. The regulations limit participation in the candidate program to a maximum of 6 years. Due to the uncertainty of whether or not JWB would endorse a female Rabbi we have allowed Captain Koppell to continue in the program pending a decision by your endorsing board. Please provide me with a target date for a firm decision and a request to continue Captain Koppell until that date.”

Finally, in a letter dated December 9, 1987, the JWB wrote to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains granting my ecclesiastical endorsement. Ironically, the letter stated that the JWB “granted him ecclesiastical endorsement.” By this time, Rabbi Julie Schwartz had stepped forward to apply for active duty as a navy chaplain, where she served for three years at Oakland Navy Hospital.

In a tragic commentary on the inability of Orthodox and non-Orthodox elements to work together, the JWB was dissolved and “immediately re-constituted as the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council. Representation of the national religious bodies is reduced from seven members to four each, but representation is expanded to include four active duty Chaplain representatives of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Veteran’s administration. Endorsement authority is relegated to each rabbinic body; processing and all support activities are accomplished by JWB.”

Called to active duty

As women have come into the military since this time, they have come through each of the movements, thus alleviating the Orthodox from the burden of appearing to sanction female rabbis. Although I continued to serve in the Army Reserve, it was not until Desert Storm in 1991 that I was called to active duty. As a congregational rabbi and the mother of two small children, I did not feel I could responsibly volunteer when I was asked in January to go to Germany in order to back-fill for active duty chaplains heading to the Gulf. Several weeks later, I was invited to go directly to the Gulf, but once again it was a voluntary assignment and duty on the home front was the higher calling. In mid-February, just prior to the ground war, I was notified that there would be another involuntary mobilization in several days and that I was to report to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. The army anticipated casualties being medevaced to the Brooke Army Medical Center and wanted to ensure that there would be a rabbi on staff.

Fortunately, the casualties were few, and I was able to spend my time working on correspondence courses and relieving the load of the active duty chaplains. After being relieved of active duty, I was assigned to the 164th Corps Support Group in Mesa, Arizona, where I continue to serve as the Assistant Group Chaplain. It was during that summer that I was promoted to my current rank of major. The military requires ongoing education for promotion to the next rank. Some of these courses are in residence, others are by correspondence. In 1991, I completed the final of four phases of the Chaplain Officer Advanced Course. Camping out for four days at Ft. Dix, the only female with 100 male chaplains, was one of the highlights of this experience.

“Chaplains are non-combatants—we do not carry weapons, we are not trained to fight. We are there to minister to the religious needs of the troops and as such, we are an essential part of the military force. No one likes war, no one wants war. No one prays for peace with more fervor than the soldier who stands ready to lay down his or her life for our country. Yet I am not a pacifist. I believe that there are times when war is justified. War is always a horrible tragedy, but it is not necessarily immoral… I am proud to consider among my many identities as wife, as mother, as rabbi, as teacher, as friend, yet another—as an American soldier. God forbid the need should arise, our Jewish soldiers deserve to have rabbis who are trained and ready to deploy alongside them, to be there to offer all the support they will need. I am proud to be among those who stand ready to go with them.”

About the Author

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Rabbi Bonnie Koppell currently serves as a rabbi to the Temple Chai community in Phoenix, Arizona. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree in 2006, and holds a master’s degree in religion from Temple University. Her BA is from Brandeis University, magna cum laude with high honors in philosophy. Rabbi Koppell was one of the first women in the United States to be ordained as a rabbi. Rabbi Koppell also serves as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve. She currently holds the rank of colonel.

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