Rabbi Laurence Bazer looks to raise awareness about Jewish American servicemembers as director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council

Bazer, who recently retired after 35 years in the military, will also serve as a vice president at the JCC Association of North America

Army chaplain Rabbi Laurence Bazer, who retired as a colonel, was a decorated member of the United States Armed Forces. Having served in the military for 35 years, he oversaw chaplaincy efforts throughout several global crises — including serving as chaplain for the World Trade Center attacks response after Sept. 11, a deployment to Afghanistan and coordinating the response to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Recently retired from the military, Bazer is hardly taking on the typical life of a pensioner. Earlier this month, Bazer began his tenure as vice president of the JCC Association of North America and director of its signature program, the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council. In an interview with eJewishPhilanthropy, Bazer described his first three weeks in the new role as overwhelming as enters the position amid a fraught period for American Jews, as antisemitism has soared in the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel. “It’s like drinking from the firehose, full frontal force,” Bazer said. “I’m not only learning the JWB but I feel it’s really important to also get to know the JCC Association, how we connect and how we can support each other.” 

Bazer steps into the role as the JCC Association has faced criticism under its former CEO over how the organization responded to some incidents revolving around Oct. 7 and more generally how it deals with the topics of Israel and Zionism. In March, Doron Krakow, then-CEO of the organization, told eJP that the movement does not have a red line on Israel policy. “Unlike Hillel, we haven’t owned the trademark, so anybody could become a JCC,” Krakow, who announced he was stepping down in March to spend time with family in Israel, said. 

To prepare to navigate these issues, among Bazer’s first initiatives will include attending a weeklong seminar in July as part of a new partnership with JCC Association and Brandeis University, called Navigating Israel and the Rise of Antisemitism. “[The seminar will] help me deepen my understanding of antisemitism and the connection between what’s happening in Israel today and the global rise in Jew-hatred, and will provide me with tools and insight to further support our chaplains,” he told eJP. 

While “still in intake mode,” Bazer said that he’s already thought about “ways to strengthen and grow JWB and the JCC Association,” noting that he sees himself as “the rabbi to the rabbis.” 

One upcoming project that Bazer is particularly excited about leading is the annual chaplain’s training event — a conference that he used to attend as a participant. The event, slated for mid-August, will be held in Manhattan this year, at the JCC Association’s midtown headquarters. This year’s theme is “caring through ourselves and others through our sacred texts.” 

“My goal is to bring in speakers from the pluralistic sides of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, to come in and train us,” Bazer said. “We really encompass all of the movements and the total spectrum of Jewish life. By and large [the denominations represented] are divided evenly.” 

Other JCC programs that Bazer, JWB’s ninth professional director since 1942, is expected to oversee include the Joint Religious Education Program, Operation Summer Camp, JWB Passport and scholarships for chaplain candidates.

Bazer steps into the position as most Jewish groups are unaware of the role chaplains play, he said. “I absolutely plan to work on that,” he told eJP. “It’s very important to me to raise awareness… of course Jews serve in the Israel Defense Forces, but in the American military, nowadays it’s much less so. But we have tens of thousands of Jews who serve in the U.S. military, and with them are their families and loved ones who serve as military families, not just our chaplains but across the board.” 

Bazer continued, “We should be very proud. Our American Jews are serving in tanks, on battleships, in the Navy, flying fighters in the Air Force; they are serving in the brand new branch of the Space Force in key positions. They are in the Marines and Coast Guard Ships… to get that awareness and pride out is key.”