As Sarah Schechter watched the twin towers fall in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, she immediately decided to join the military. The fact that she was already married and attending rabbinical school didn’t change her mind one bit.
“I realized how important our military is to protect us, to keep us safe, to keep us alive,” she said during an interview at Andrews Air Force Base. “The next day, Sept. 12, I called the recruiter and said, ‘Do you have a need for a rabbi?’”
The recruiter had never fielded that question before, and Rabbi Schechter, ordained from Hebrew Union College, went on to become the very first female rabbi in this country’s Air Force. She also is the only active duty rabbi. Her khaki mat-ernity uniform, combat boots and all, is on display at the Women’s Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Capt. Rabbi Schechter has led Seders in the desert, held weekly Shabbat dinners in her home and mostly just been there for members of the Air Force and their families.
Actually, her career choice isn’t that surprising. Her father is a rabbi who also served as an Air Force chaplain.
And there is her caring and interest in so many things. She speaks Japanese, is enthusiastic about all things patriotic and clearly wants to be there for others — both in good and bad times.
Much of her job is counseling those connected with Andrews Air Force Base, including those who maintain and operate Air Force One and Two.
“I am the chaplain of the people who take care of the plane. I am the chaplain of people who take care of him,” she said, referring to President Barack Obama.
She is there for relatives of those killed in action, talks with those who have contemplated suicide. She befriends anyone about to be deployed.
Going to the home of a deceased service member “is really devastating. It’s not something that has ever gotten easier. I hope it never does. I just try to be there for them. This is not a time for taking away grief. It’s raw. I just try to be present,” she explained.
Because Andrews Air Force Base is the landing spot for all wounded warriors, it is not uncommon for Rabbi Schechter to join a medical team and be the first to greet the returning injured service members.
Most of her counseling concerns relationships, she noted. It’s hard on families when one person is freq-uently in and out of their lives, said the 45-year-old, who has been in the Air Force for 11 years.
She knows firsthand how hard being away can be. She remembers vividly how she returned home after one of her six deployments when her daughter, Yael, was just a baby. She needed a diaper change, and Rabbi Schechter happily approached her.
But her daughter “took one look at me and started crying. She wanted her father. That’s who she wanted. That’s who she was used to. There was a disconnect,”Rabbi Schechter recalled.
Experiences such as that help her relate to other airmen and women.
Rabbi Schechter said the “vast maj-ority” of Air Force men and women are not Jewish; the percentage of Jews at Andrews is estimated at slightly less than 1 percent. There are between 10,000 and 11,000 Jews in the entire Armed Forces, she said, calling that number pretty impressive for a people who make up less than 2 percent of the American population.
Regardless of their religion, and about half of those at Andrews list no religion at all, she cares deeply for them. They know her door is always open, both to her office and her home. She lives on the base with her husband, Joe Charnes, and their 7-year-old daughter.
Between 16 and 22 people “cram” into her house each Friday night to share “an extended Kiddish” and a meal.
Because of the diversity of the participants, the half-hour service requires lots of explaining.
“It is not rote. It is something deeply meaningful,” she said. “I want to showcase Judaism, not convert anyone. I just want to let them learn about Judaism.”
In March, she conducted two Seders, with matzah and kosher MREs (meals ready to eat) in Southwest Asia. “It was a Seder in the desert for 41 people,” she said, noting once again that most of the participants were not Jewish.
“A deployment Seder is very special. It’s very meaningful,” she said. “It’s even more intensified, because we are deploying, and we are fighting for freedom, and what is the message of Passover? Freedom.”
When asked if she felt nervous being a Jew in that part of their word, Rabbi Schechter slowly shook her head no.
“I’m more reflective” when flying over Germany, she confessed.
As a chaplain, she doesn’t have much interaction with the local population, and she admits, “I don’t want to contemplate what could happen to me if I were captured.”
But being a Jew in Iraq can be very special, she said. She has been to Ur, where Abraham is said to have lived, and Ninevah, the wicked city in the Bible where Jonah was sent.
While she enjoys celebrating with her military family, she understands that holidays are when homesickness can be at its worse. Passover is one of the hardest, she said, because parents are instructed to teach their children, and they can’t really do that if they are on the other side of the world.
Rabbi Schechter works through it all, striving to build community.
“I try to do that in every aspect,” she said, noting that one of her most important jobs is “showing up and being a friendly face.”
She likens the instant rapport those in uniform feel toward each other to Klal Yisrael, the way Jews feel a strong connection with each other.
Rabbi Schechter will soon be leaving Maryland and Andrews to become chaplain at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. It is yet another stop on the many assignments she has had. She hopes there will be many more.
“As long as I feel like I can make a meaningful contribution,” she said, she will stay in the Air Force.