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‘I hope Torah aboard inspires sailors,’ retiring US Navy rabbi says of aircraft carrier near Israel

In the course of 35 years, Rabbi Irving Elson made Jewish life more accessible for 25,000 service members and their families.

Aerial drone photo of the “USS Gerald R. Ford” aircraft carrier. Credit: Aerial-motion/Shutterstock.
Aerial drone photo of the “USS Gerald R. Ford” aircraft carrier. Credit: Aerial-motion/Shutterstock.

U.S. aircraft carriers are equipped with GPS, an inertial navigation system, satellites and even old-fashioned paper charts. They also have magnetic compasses in the middle of their bridges. Essentially, those on board know the ship’s direction at any given moment.

Rabbi Irving Elson, who served as a U.S. Navy chaplain for 35 years, figures they have a second compass as well.

“That’s the Torah,” he told JNS. “That’s the moral compass for the ship.”

Experts are divided on the degree to which the USS Gerald R. Ford, which is stationed near Israel, is serving as a deterrent to Iran, Hezbollah and other Israeli foes and whether it is intended to dissuade Israel from pursuing certain military options that may be in its best interest but which Washington sees as anathema.

Whatever symbolic mission the world’s largest aircraft carrier is fulfilling in the region, Elson knows the ark and Torah scroll on the ship well, as they were dedicated and placed there during his tenure.

“I hope the Torah aboard inspires the sailors and the crew,” the Conservative rabbi told JNS.

The ark on the USS Gerald R. Ford is located in a prominent place in the ship’s library, which doubles as a chapel. It is one of the few quiet locations on board.

“Whether you’re Jewish or not, observant or not, whether you know what a Torah is, this is the basis for the moral compass for so many of the world’s religions, including Islam,” Elson said. “That’s how I look at it. I’d like to think that’s how the crew looks at it.”

‘Best-kept secret’

After the High Holidays, Elson retired as director of the more than 100-year-old Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council, which per its site, does everything from lobbying Congress so Marines can wear kippot to hosting Passover seders for soldiers on remote Afghani bases to publicizing the experiences of Jews in the military. 

The two-time Yeshiva University graduate, who holds a master’s degree and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1982 through the Navy’s chaplain candidate program in 1982. 

After 35 years in the Navy, he led the Jewish Welfare Board, the nation’s oldest and largest organization serving Jewish military members and families, for seven years. The board is part of the JCC Association of North America.

“The military rabbinate is one of the best-kept secrets of American Jewry,” Elson told JNS in 2020.

The USS Gerald R. Ford has no rabbi on board but has a Jewish lay leader. That person is not called upon specifically to discuss the Israeli-Hamas conflict with the crew, but there’s no doubt in Elson’s mind that the situation is ripe for conversation on board. 

Irving Elson
Herman “Herm” Shelanski (far right), then skipper of the squadron on the “USS John C. Stennis,” celebrating Passover in 2008 on the ship with U.S. Navy Chaplain (Capt.) Rabbi Irving Elson (holding matzah) and executive officer Capt. Ron Reis (next to the left). Credit: Courtesy of Vice Adm. (Ret.) Herman Shelanski.

“I am positive that the conflict is discussed in the mess decks and down in the berthing areas, and maybe in the non-Jewish chaplain sermons,” Elson said.

He told JNS he’d have loved to have heard the reaction aboard when the ship’s captain announced that the crew would not be going home but was instead heading to the Middle East.

“They have CNN, Fox News. I’m sure they have Al Jazeera on the ship. And I’m sure it’s being discussed,” he said. “But, I’d like to think that their focus is on—No. 1—pursuing American interests in the region, and, number two, pursuing justice.” 

Teenage Marines are unlikely to be geopolitics experts, but “they care about taking care of the bad guys, and Hamas are a bunch of really bad guys.”

Right there in the Bible

As a “caregiver for the caregivers,” Elson led the Jewish Welfare Board’s rabbis and lay leaders and liaised with the U.S. Department of Defense and its chief of chaplains or assignments officer on Jewish issues. That included Jewish leadership placement and kosher food provision. 

He also oversaw JWB’s various programs, like its Operation Summer Camp for Jewish children in military families, and expanded JWB’s intertwining with the JCC Association by taking greater advantage of its resources.

That followed a 35-year military career with the U.S. Navy, during which he served as the highest-ranking Jewish chaplain and a principal adviser to the chief of naval personnel and the Marine Corps on matters of religious accommodation.

Elson told JNS about going to his commander one September when he was stationed as a battalion chaplain in Okinawa, Japan, to ask for time off to conduct services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The commander obliged.

Then it was time to explain that he needed off for Sukkot, which proved more troublesome. “I said, ‘Look. It’s right there in the Bible. Tabernacles,” Elson told the commander. The latter again agreed. 

Six days later he was back telling his commander about Shemini Atzeret. This time, the commander got accusatory. “You’re just making stuff up now,” the commander said.

When the Marines made its first push into Baghdad in 2002 following the 9/11 attacks, Elson was the only Jewish chaplain serving with the corps. He deployed to Kuwait in December 2021 and served as the rabbi for the I Marine Expeditionary Force. Prior to the start of the war, he would float around to different units in Kuwait, leading Jewish personnel in services. 

By what he calls a strange set of circumstances, Elson found himself in the headquarters of Gen. James Mattis, the future U.S. defense secretary who was then a division commander, the day before the war started.

“I had literally just gotten there to say ‘Hello’ to him, and he goes ‘Who are you?’” Elson said, noting Mattis had an imposing tone. When Elson explained that he was with the I Marine Expeditionary Force, Mattis had other ideas.

Irving Elson
Ret. U.S. Navy Chaplain (Capt.) Irving Elson, director of the Jewish Chaplains Council and head of the Armed Forces and Veterans Services Committee of the Jewish Welfare Board, lights a candle in a ceremony to remember Holocaust victims. The ceremony was part of the Department of the Air Force’s Holocaust Days of Remembrance event held in Arlington, Va. on April 19, 2022. Credit: Christine D. Millette/U.S. Air Force.

“No, you’re not. You’re the new chaplain for First Battalion, along with the Marines. Paperwork will follow,” Mattis told him. The battalion was short a chaplain, and Elson was to fill the void.

Elson was supposed to fill in for a few days until a replacement arrived. The war started the next day, so he remained with the unit for six months.

“You’re always hungry. You’re always tired. You’re always scared, but you push on,” he recalled of that period. “It was the best of times in the most horrible of situations.”

‘Like Forrest Gump’

Elson was also unexpectedly on the ground for the gruesome Second Battle of Fallujah in late 2004, after having arrived for what he thought would just be the High Holidays.   

“My kids say I’m like Forrest Gump. If anything good or bad happens, I just happen to be there,” he said. “The most important thing that came from all that is the ability to put my hand on the shoulder of a soldier and say, ‘You know what, I know. I know.’” 

Elson also did two tours in Afghanistan.

After his military service concluded, Elson said his wife gave him two weeks off … and then he started at JWB.

“I thought after 35 years in the Navy, I’m never going to find another job as meaningful and where the team works as closely,” he said. Caring for and mentoring other rabbis in the service proved “the most sacred of all of all my duties at JWB because they’re really at the pointy end of the spear.”

JWB has about 80 endorsed rabbis, of which around 30 are active. There are also about 100 lay leaders, who serve in the military while volunteering to lead small Jewish communities without rabbis.

“That’s just not a lot if you think about covering the world,” Elson said. There are 10,000 Jewish enlisted personnel, with 15,000 family members. During his first year on the job, he said someone had an idea for a JWB t-shirt: “Never have so few done so much for so few.”

Irving Elson
Ret. U.S. Navy Chaplain (Capt.) Irving Elson. Credit: Courtesy of the United States Naval Academy.

As part of the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, JWB shifted back to focusing on service members and their families during Elson’s tenure, reaching out to the U.S. Jewish community at large for support.  

A generous Marcus Foundation grant provided free JCC overnight camp for the children of service members for the first time this summer, and 54 children from all over the world took part.

Elson also focused on creating an online Hebrew school for children of service members and republished the JWB’s prayer book for Jewish military personnel. 

“That actually happened my first year at JWB, and it’s such a gift to be able to tell service members this siddur was made specifically and especially for you,” he said. 

He spent much of his time at JWB’s headquarters, but his favorite experiences were spent with the organization’s rabbis, lay leaders and Jewish personnel. 

“That’s really where the rubber meets the road, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

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