Welcoming Those Who Serve

The Jewish community does need to recognize that there are Jewish men and women serving in the U.S. military and that they have families back home who need support.

Printby Rabbi Harold Robinson
and Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky

Military families in the Jewish community have been invisible for too long. They are uprooted often and can experience Jewish communal life as “strangers” more frequently than their neighbors. Their need for support and understanding can be very different, and yet their desire to connect is just as strong, perhaps more so.

JWB Jewish Chaplains Council works tirelessly to support the Jewish men and women serving in the United States Armed Forces. Our efforts range from endorsing and training Jewish chaplains and certifying Jewish lay leaders to work with chaplains in absence of Jewish clergy; to sending holiday care packages and letters. We represent Jewish service members’ interests to the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. government and seek to protect their religious liberties.

For nearly 100 years, JWB has been a constant presence in the lives of these men and women. We are proud that our organization has reached an important point in its history and that we are able through our parent organization, JCC Association, to launch Project Welcome Home. This initiative is designed to educate JCCs and empower them to be community leaders for engaging returning veterans and their families in the Jewish community.

The inaugural year of Project Welcome Home began this spring with six JCCs signing on as pilot communities. These JCCs applied to be part of this program, and just completed their initial training in early May. They recognize the presence of returning veterans and military families in their communities and understanding how important it is to reach out and connect this population to the community. They are located throughout the United States, in major Jewish communities and in areas that have much smaller Jewish populations. They are a variety of sizes and styles, all united in the mission to help Jewish men and women who serve in our armed forces.

The Project Welcome Home JCCs have agreed to offer membership incentives to returning veterans and their family members, ranging from free or reduced membership to discounts on early childhood programs and day camp. Several of these JCCs already offer such incentives to active military personnel and others are exploring ways to do that. These JCCs have agreed to be part of intensive training on the needs of veterans and their families and will have staff dedicated to working with them. They will create programming that highlights the service of Jewish men and women in the armed forces, engaging the leadership skills these men and women possess, and will be part of an ongoing educational process.

One of the long term goals of Project Welcome Home to educate JCCs across the movement so that they will know how to appropriately acknowledge the dedicated service of the Jewish men and women in the military and the sacrifices that their families make. A JCC that has not worked with a veteran or military family will have the tools and the backing of JCC Association to ask for help when that family walks through its door. Project Welcome Home was developed so JCC staff will have the resources to help our Jewish veterans and military personnel from the first encounter. And at JCC Association, we want to know from those who serve and their families the kinds of experiences they have, so that we can improve JCC sensitivity and the impact of our program.

The JWB Jewish Chaplains Council is the first Jewish organization working with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation in a coalition of public, private, nonprofit and faith-based groups addressing the unmet needs of veterans and their caregivers. In early April, the Dole Foundation released results from a RAND Corporation study that found military caregivers struggling to shoulder enormous responsibility caring for wounded service members. The coalition hopes to address these needs, and has cited Project Welcome Home as providing a template for other organizations wishing to do so.

The Jewish community does need to recognize that there are Jewish men and women serving in the U.S. military and that they have families back home who need support. It is time Jewish communities learn how to respond when they find out someone’s son or daughter, spouse, or sibling is deployed to Afghanistan, is serving aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean, or was wounded in Iraq. JCC Association is proud to take the lead in the Jewish community by creating Project Welcome Home and positioning JCCs as the community leaders in this effort.

Rear Adm. Harold Robinson USN Ret is director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council and director of Armed Forces and Veterans Services at JCC Association. Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky is deputy director for programming, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council.