Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff’s service in the U.S. military spanned from being a line officer in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam to Special Assistant to the Secretary and Chief-of-Staff of the U.S. Air Force during the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along the way, Rabbi Resnicoff has been a leading voice for interfaith values, interreligious affairs, and veterans affairs- the retired U.S. Navy Chaplain was among the small group of Vietnam veterans who helped establish the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and offered the closing prayer at its dedication 30 years ago. He sat down with historian Jason Steinhauer to discuss his military career, current interfaith work, and what Veterans Day means to him.
Jason: What does it mean to you to be a veteran of the U.S. military?
Rabbi Resnicoff: ’There are many ways to serve our country. I think veterans can take special pride in the fact that they have literally put their lives on the line for our nation. It’s like the story of the pig and the chicken who see a restaurant sign advertising “ham and eggs” as the daily special. The chicken is afraid, but the pig says to her, “All they want from you is a contribution. From me, they want total commitment.” I take pride in the fact that I was among a group of men and women who responded to the call for total commitment.
No action gives me more pride than the fact that I was part of the small group of Vietnam veterans who fought to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That Memorial was created as a place for all Americans, regardless of their feelings about the war, to come together to mourn our dead- and in so doing, to salute those veterans who had come home, but who brought with them the physical and emotional scars of that war.
The wall has become for me the closest thing we have in America to the Kotel. It is a place for prayer, for memories, and for dreams.
Jason: How has your military service as a Chaplain and life’s work as a Rabbi informed each other?
Rabbi Resnicoff: I sometimes considered leaving the military to look for a position in a synagogue. My belief that Judaism could really be a “light unto the nations” kept me in the chaplaincy. I took pride in the fact that I was not only helping others, I was helping them as a Jew, and as a rabbi, drawing from the wisdom and humanity of my faith. I took pride in the fact that my rabbinic training helped me bring a “Jewish voice” to the table.
Jason: Tell us about the projects you’re currently working on.
Rabbi Resnicoff: I’m involved in a number of projects linked to remembering, and drawing lessons learned from past events with upcoming anniversaries.
I am working to make February 2, 2013 “Four Chaplains Day” because it falls one day before the day when four Army chaplains- one Jewish, two Protestant, and one Catholic- each gave up his life jacket to save someone else when the ship they were on was torpedoed during WWII.
I am also working in various ways to ensure we remember the October 23, 2013, the 30th anniversary of the Beirut barracks bombing- the first modern suicide attack against Americans. I was present in Beirut that day and worked side-by-side with U.S. Chaplains to help our wounded, regardless of religion.
Jason: What do you think is important for young Jewish professionals to know about Jewish military service?
Rabbi Resnicoff: Most Jews know about the Biblical verse from Isaiah that teaches we should beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. There is another prophetic verse, from Joel, that teaches that we must sometimes beat our plowshares into swords, and our pruning hooks into spears. We must keep the dream alive, but must understand there still may be times we are called upon to fight to help make those dreams possible.
I salute my fellow veterans who stood up in a special way, and I thank every man and woman who refuses to give up hope. Jews must believe that there is hope in the future, and that each of us can help bring a time of peace closer through the way we live our lives.