Portraits of veterans

Portraits of veterans

A chaplain's calling

Rabbi Reuben Gross, center, blows a shofar in a posted picture taken before Rosh Hashanah at Clark Air Force Base in the Phillipines.

A certain kind of impersonal authority comes with some positions – just for argument’s sake, say that position is as a Jewish Air Force chaplain.

Then there’s the kind of authority that someone – say, perhaps, a Jewish Air Force chaplain – grows into.

That was the experience of Rabbi Reuben E. Gross – now Dr. Gross, of Teaneck, and then Lt. Gross, of the United States Air Force – as he served as chaplain in the Philippines. His was a peacetime stint – he was in the Philippines just before the just-begun Vietnam war caused the United States to bring what it called advisors there to oversee that conflict.

Dr. Gross grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, part of an actively practicing Orthodox family, and went to college at Yeshiva University. Six months before the end of his senior year, he volunteered to be a chaplain, and two weeks after he graduated, with the smichah that made him a rabbi and the okay from the Jewish Welfare Board that acknowledged his credentials to be kosher, he was ordered to report to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for training.

Lackland was a pleasant experience for him. He had not met many non-Jews until then, but “my roommate was a Baptist minister,” he said. “We had a test every week. One was on the uniform code of military justice. After studying Gemara for 10 years, the uniform code was easy.

“Then I was sent to another Air Force base in Wichita Falls, Texas, where I was the only chaplain.”

In the United States Armed Forces, chaplains minister to their co-religionists, but they also act as advisors and counselors to everyone, of any faith. It could be a complicated setup, but neither chaplains nor their charges seem to find it problematic.

“I was a first lieutenant,” Dr. Gross said. “If someone has a problem, he would go to his captain, and on up the chain of command. As a chaplain, I had access to the general.

“It was a powerful position. Everyone was very friendly to me, and I was 24 years old,” he said.

“I was a child.”

After a few months, Dr. Gross received another letter. He was being reassigned to Clark Air Force Base in Luzon. This Brooklyn boy was going to the other side of the world.

How do you get there? Well, “you’re in the Air Force,” Dr. Gross said. “It’s like taking a bus in Manhattan. You go there” – in this case, “there” was San Francisco – “and ask when is the next plane going to the Philippines.”

He had bought a car in Texas, so he drove north and west across the country – “I stopped at the Grand Canyon,” he said – and flew to Hawaii and then on to Tokyo, where he spent a few (as it turned out, unauthorized) days sightseeing on his own, before reporting for duty at Clark.

There was a handful of other chaplains at Clark, Dr. Gross reported; some Catholic, others Protestant. There were only about 30 or so Jews on base; nonetheless, he was welcomed with a big story in the base newspaper, which also announced the time for Friday night services.

There were about 10 to 15 young men on the base “who were really immersed in yiddishkeit,” and they formed the core of his community, Dr. Gross said; there were enough for a minyan, so they could pray together, and he would hold shiurim, study sessions, for them. There also was a small ex-pat Jewish community in Manila.

He celebrated the holidays on the base. Before Sukkot, “I was sitting in my office, and I look up, and there’s a Filipino coming into my office with a machete.

“I look at him, and he looks at me, and I look at the machete on his hip, and he says, ‘I’m ready.’ I think, ‘Oh my God.” And then he says, ‘What’s wrong, sir? I’m ready.'”

Ready, that was, to put up the sukkah.

And even in those pre-Chabad-menorah years, the base erected a large chanukiah to mark Festival of Lights. “You could see it a mile away,” Dr. Gross said.

While he was at Clark, Dr. Gross earned a master’s degree at the University of the Phillipines; his thesis was about the State of Israel.

During his time in the Philippines, Dr. Gross, whose travel before he joined the Air Force was limited by whether his chosen destination had a subway stop, was able to roam freely throughout the Far East. “I would just hop on a plane,” he said. “India, Bangkok, the ancient palace at Ankor Watt, Japan. I always traveled in uniform – you just show them your orders, saying that you’re on vacation, and then you go wherever you want.”

He remembers going to a minyan during a Shabbat in Hong Kong.

He was given an aliyah. Normally, that would mean that he would recite the blessing before and after the Torah reading, and then stand by as someone else – someone who had advance warning and had practiced – would chant from the vowel-less scroll. “But this was Sephardic minhag,” he said. The minyan went by the customs of the Sephardic community, which dictated that if a rabbi were honored with an aliyah, he would be expected to read.


As it happened, Dr. Gross has been trained more thoroughly in Torah reading – leyning – than most young men in his position were, because his father had believed such training to be necessary. But there were some problems.

First, on a technical level, Sephardic and Ashkenazic calligraphy are not the same; some words are spelled differently, and the scroll itself, housed in a metal case, is held up, not laid down on a desk.

And it’s hard to do well when you’re in a strange place, reading from a strange scroll, with not only your honor but your country’s at stake.

As he walked up to the bimah, a lamb to the slaughter, Dr. Gross considered his options.

“If I say to the baal koreh” – the reader – “‘You leyn,’ then he’ll do it, but everyone will say, ‘Those American rabbis. They can’t even leyn.'” But, of course, were he to try and fail, the judgment would be at least as harsh.

“Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” he said.

“I’m 25 years old, and it is the yichus of the American rabbinate that I am holding in the palm of my hand.”

When he got to the bimah, “I looked at it, and I said to myself, ‘I know this parashah,'” he said. He read it effortlessly, he recalled, and the national honor was saved.

Dr. Gross spent a year and a half in the Philippines; as his time there ended so did his enlistment in the Air Force. After he came back to New York, he realized that pastoral work was the part of his work as a rabbi that appealed most to him.

His interests exposed him to much of the most exciting trends in psychotherapy, which was at its cultural height then, in the 1960s. Influenced strongly by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking, he found himself drawn to the intersection of pastoral and psychological counseling; eventually he decided to practice psychotherapy. He earned a doctorate in psychology and now specializes in marriage counseling.

By that time, he had grown into the authority that once came with his uniform – and vanished when he took it off. Now it was effortlessly his.

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