‘He was the chaplains’ chaplain’

‘He was the chaplains’ chaplain’

Remembering Rabbi Colonel David Lapp of Fair Lawn

David and Ruth Lapp celebrate Purim. (All photos courtesy Lapp and Herman families)
David and Ruth Lapp celebrate Purim. (All photos courtesy Lapp and Herman families)

David Lapp was a real people person. He easily connected with people from all walks of life and really cared about them. He was also committed to his Judaism and to making Judaism accessible to others.

Rabbi Colonel David Lapp, who lived in Fair Lawn and died on October 26, at 91, was born in Vienna in 1931. His parents, Peisach and Chana, had moved from Poland, where most of their relatives remained, and the family visited Poland regularly, so he got to know many of them.

In 2011, Ruth and David Lapp are surrounded by their three children and 11 grandchildren.

As a young boy, he sang in a choir in a Vienna synagogue — but those were among his few good memories of that time and place. He also had memories of being chased by Brownshirts and of being beaten up. And he had vivid recollections of Kristallnacht, of seeing the broken glass, of watching as the prayer books, Bibles, and Talmud volumes were taken out of a shul and burned, of seeing a synagogue burning, and of being terrified, his daughter, Esti Herman of Fair Lawn, said.

And he had memories of his father and other Jews being forced to clean the mess the next day, and he also had memories of his father’s arrest.

Rabbi David Lapp in uniform.

Rabbi Lapp’s father was held in a labor camp for about a year, and he remembered his mother holding his hand when she went to Gestapo headquarters to plead for her husband’s release, his wife, Ruth Lapp, also of Fair Lawn, added. The family had already secured visas, and the Nazis released Peisach on the condition that he leave the country.

David arrived in the United States with his parents in 1940, when he was 9 years old, and the family settled in the Bronx. He went to public school and continued to sing in a synagogue choir -– this time at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; since members of the choir did not travel on Shabbos, the synagogue put them up nearby. Later, he attended Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy or MTA. He went on to college at Yeshiva University and then was ordained at RIETS -– the university’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

A full honor guard paid respects to David Lapp at his funeral.

After he was ordained, Rabbi Lapp was drafted into the U.S. Army as a chaplain, Ms. Lapp said. But part of the reason he stayed in the army and made it his career was because he was so grateful that his family had been able to find refuge in this country. It was his way of paying back his debt of gratitude to the United States.

His experiences in Vienna likely also affected her father’s decision to remain a chaplain, Ms. Herman said. “He definitely had survivor’s guilt -– he spoke until his dying day about the many family members who remained in Poland and were killed. I think it made him want to be a soldier, to give him an opportunity to give back, and a rabbi, to give him an opportunity both to give back and to share Judaism -– to keep the tradition alive and to rebuild the community.”

Rabbi Lapp, third from right in the first row, poses with other officers.

Rabbi Lapp rose through the ranks during his 25-year chaplaincy career until he was promoted to full colonel, his son-in-law, Dr. Brad Herman of Fair Lawn, said. And he loved his job. “There’s a famous saying, ‘if you love your job, you will never work a day in your life’ — well, my father-in-law defined that saying. He never worked a day in his life. His career ultimately had multiple stages, and he loved each stage passionately.”

Rabbi Lapp was posted to about 14 different bases and the family moved every few years, Ms. Lapp said. His first assignment was in Chicago, and his second was in Munich. He was very reluctant to go there, because it had not been that long since he had narrowly escaped from Vienna. He told his commander in Chicago that he felt he could not go back to Germany, but the commander explained that the orders had come from Washington and couldn’t be changed at that point. The commander asked Rabbi Lapp that he give the posting six months. If he still couldn’t tolerate it at that point, he would be reassigned.

Rabbi Lapp is in Vietnam; there’s a Torah on the Jeep.

So Rabbi Lapp went to Munich. About a week after he arrived, he met Ruth Strauss.

Ms. Strauss was born into a German Jewish family. Her mother, Chava, was an ardent Zionist. Her father, Karl, enjoyed his comfortable life in Frankfurt and had little interest in leaving. Both Chava and Karl came from wealthy families, and the young couple lived in an upscale neighborhood of Frankfurt. One day, in 1936, Chava visited a beautiful park and was shocked to see a new sign prohibiting Jews and dogs. She came home and told her husband that they had to leave for Palestine, and that if he would not go with her, she would go by herself. The couple packed two suitcases and left; Ruth was born in Palestine and grew up on a moshav called Bustan HaGalil, a few miles south of Nahariya.

Rabbi Lapp is in Vietnam in 1967.

After serving in the Israeli air force, Ms. Strauss wanted to become a nurse. Germany offered free tuition to citizens; she had grown up among German Jews, speaking German as well as Hebrew. The war was now over, and Germany had been her parents’ home, so she chose to study there. Before they fled, her parents had close friends in Germany who were not Jewish, and they had tracked the Strauss family down in Palestine after the war. Ruth Strauss stayed with those friends while she was in school -– they took her in and treated her like a daughter, she recalled.

So Rabbi Lapp and Ms. Strauss met and were smitten with each other, Dr. Herman said. They were married within the year. The couple remained in Germany for the remainder of Rabbi Lapp’s assignment, and their first child, Esti, was born there. Ms. Lapp found that she liked army life -– she enjoyed interacting with the people they met at the different bases and with the local communities.

Ruth Strauss and David Lapp on their wedding day.

More postings followed; the couple’s two sons, Aaron and Eli, were born on bases inside the United States.

David and Ruth Lapp were married for 61 years.

In October 1962., Ms. Lapp was pregnant with Esti.

In 1966, soon after Eli was born, Rabbi Lapp was posted to Vietnam and served as head chaplain of the 1st Armored Division. “That was an extraordinary year for him,” Dr. Herman said. “He found being a chaplain in this type of setting -– a war zone — extraordinarily meaningful. As a chaplain, he provided spiritual and pastoral care for all soldiers, Jews and non-Jews, and he excelled in relating to people from all walks of life, to people of any religion or any race. And he could relate to them in any manner -– not only on a religious level.”

“My father served all populations in the army with gusto,” Rabbi Lapp’s younger son, Eli Lapp of Yonkers, said. “He would fly in choppers over enemy territory to reach a wounded soldier of any religion. He felt it was an honor to serve a soldier.”

Rabbi Lapp is with Jean Faircloth MacArthur, the wife of General Douglas MacArthur.

Of course, the family could not join Rabbi Lapp in Vietnam, so Mrs. Lapp took the three children to Israel to be with her parents, and the children learned Hebrew. When war broke out in Israel in 1967, Rabbi Lapp strongly urged the family to return to the United States, Eli Lapp said. When Rabbi Lapp returned to the United States, Eli didn’t recognize him. Since the family had been living in Israel when he started to talk, he had begun speaking in Hebrew. When he first saw his father, he turned to his mother and asked, “Eema, mi zeh?” — Mom, who is this?

A few years later, Rabbi Lapp was posted to Germany again. By this time, Esti was about 11 and she remembers living there. Her parents were involved in a social club intended to promote friendship and understanding between the Americans on the base and the local population. Ms. Herman remembers asking her father how he could establish these friendships. He told her that these were not the people who had killed his family -– that these people were his own age, they were the next generation, she recalled. “He had no anger at the community; he believed in reaching out and showing love, kindness and friendship.”

David sits in between his parents, Peisach and Chana, in Vienna.

During that posting, the family visited Dachau, Ms. Herman recalled. “It wasn’t set up like a museum then, it wasn’t pretty like it is today, and we really saw the rawness. Being there was really hard for my father, and I remember being terrified.”

As the family moved around, they often wound up in areas that did not have large Jewish communities. In these types of areas, chapels on military bases often serve as synagogues for local populations as well as for members of the military, Dr. Herman said. Rabbi and Ms. Lapp would establish relationships with local populations, and Rabbi Lapp often established Hebrew schools for the community on base, Ms. Herman said. “He touched so many lives; one couple at the funeral told us that he had married them.”

David sits in between his parents, Peisach and Chana, in Vienna.

“My father enjoyed serving the Jewish community,” Mr. Lapp said. “He was deeply spiritual, and Judaism was very important to him.”

Although most of the posts had no Jewish school nearby, Rabbi Lapp made sure his children learned about Judaism. “Every Shabbos, he insisted that my brothers and I learn the parsha with him and that we daven together,” Ms. Herman said.

In 1963, the Lapps hold Esti; Ms. Lapp is pregnant with Aaron.

“Shabbos was a special day in our house,” Mr. Lapp agreed. “My father demanded that we celebrate properly with him for a couple of hours before we went to spend time with our friends.”

After 25 years of active duty, Rabbi Lapp retired from the military. And after 25 years of living on army bases, the family needed a place of their own. There had been no Jewish school near Rabbi Lapp’s final posts and he wanted his sons to have the opportunity to go to a Jewish high school, so they enrolled in MTA, which offered a dorm option. One of the boys had a wonderful teacher named Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, who also served as the rabbi of a shul in Fair Lawn, Congregation Shomrei Torah, so the Lapps decided to move there, Dr. Herman said. Rabbi Lapp maintained a very close relationship with Rabbi Yudin for more than 40 years.

5-year-old David sang in the choir at the main synagogue in Vienna.

Then Rabbi Lapp began the next stage of his career, overseeing the U.S. chaplaincy as the executive director of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council. In that role, a position he held for more than 20 years, Rabbi Lapp oversaw a council composed of representatives of the country’s three main rabbinical schools –- Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Yeshiva University’s RIETS -– that reviewed applications for chaplaincy positions and endorsed the candidates the group felt met the criteria necessary to serve in the armed forces, Dr. Herman said. The position also entailed supporting Jewish chaplains in the field and making sure they had the necessary supplies to provide spiritual support. Rabbi Lapp regularly traveled to visit bases and met with commanders, Jewish chaplains, and Jewish military personnel. When issues arose, he interceded on behalf of chaplains and Jewish military personnel. He also collaborated with rabbis from each of the three rabbinical schools to produce a transdenominational prayer book for military personnel.

Rabbi Irv Elson now is the director of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council. He joined the military when Rabbi Lapp held that position, and Rabbi and Ms. Lapp met with Rabbi Elson and his wife, Fran, to discuss what military life was like. “They spoke to us with such love,” Rabbi Elson recalled. “Both David and Ruth were all about service to the Jewish community and kindness; they were wonderful role models.”

In 1965, the Lapp family poses; clockwise from left, it’s Ruth, Esti, David, Aaron, and Eli.

When Rabbi Elson was deployed to Iraq and Ms. Elson was home in California with three small children, Rabbi Lapp would call Ms. Elson regularly and ask how he could help. Now, almost 30 years later, Rabbi Elson tries to emulate Rabbi Lapp. “He set the bar very high on how we take care of our chaplains and of our Jewish personnel in the military,” he said. “Anyone can send a siddur or a shofar, but he set the bar as far as taking care of the chaplains as their friend, as their mentor, as their rabbi.

“He was the chaplains’ chaplain.”

David and Ruth Lapp celebrate his 90th birthday.

When Rabbi Lapp finally retired, in his mid-70s, he signed on as a volunteer chaplain at 11 nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities in Bergen and Passaic counties. He would visit with the residents, share thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, and talk about upcoming Jewish holidays, Dr. Herman said. And he would sing with the residents; sometimes he found that residents who had lost the ability to understand language would respond to singing. He never really retired from this role -– he stopped only when covid hit and he was no longer allowed to enter the facilities, Ms. Herman said.

Rabbi Lapp also talked about his experiences in Vienna; he testified for the Spielberg Foundation and for Yad Vashem and spoke to students.

Rabbi Lapp was very skilled at connecting with people, Dr. Herman said. “He was able to really convey Judaism in all its facets on so many different levels to people from all walks of life. And he reveled in that. He loved what he did.”

Her husband really enjoyed serving the Jewish soldiers and all the soldiers, Ms. Lapp said; he enjoyed serving anyone in need. “It was his nature to help people.

“My father really cared about people; he wanted to help people and to educate,” Ms. Herman added. “He would tell me, God kept me alive for a reason, and I have to give back. And he taught us to respect everyone, regardless of their background or the type of job they held.”

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