By Don Wagner, Army News Service
“Soldiers and cadets of all faith and some with no faith come and talk to me,” said Capt. David Ruderman, Jewish chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York.
Ruderman is among 11 active-duty Jewish chaplains of about 1,455 chaplains of all faiths in the Regular Army.
Serving at the U.S. Military Academy, Ruderman said he hopes Soldiers and cadets see that he cares about them, and that he has no agenda other than their well-being, regardless of their religion.
If a non-Jewish Soldier has a religious issue that he cannot help him or her with, Ruderman said he refers that Soldier to a colleague who can.
“There is a back and forth between chaplains,” Ruderman said, “to find the best person or method to serve Soldiers. My chaplain colleagues, in turn, are always sending me their Jewish Soldiers.”
Recently, another chaplain put Ruderman in touch with a Jewish Soldier who needed to learn about maintaining Sabbath observance during a deployment — something he was uniquely qualified to help with.
A shared commitment motivates Ruderman.
“The Army is not for everyone,” he said. “Army service is for those who want to serve in meaningful work, be part of a community of brothers and sisters who will always be there for you, and know that they are contributing to the protection of our nation and its way of life.
“I try to develop mentors, attach myself to officers and non-commissioned officers whom I respect and can learn from.”
Ruderman, a native of Acton, Mass., provides worship, education, counseling and crisis intervention support for cadets, Soldiers, family members and DoD civilians of the USMA and garrison. He performs Jewish rites, rituals and services for the academy’s 4,500 cadets, 6,600 military and civilian workers, and 13,000 residents.
His duties include managing the religious program budget and the funding of the academy’s religious programs. Ruderman also provides counseling, marriage and singles weekend retreats, suicide prevention instructional courses and Bible study.
“My mission at West Point is unique in that my chaplain duties are directed mostly at Jewish service members,” said Ruderman, 42. “At the academy, we have a chapel for Jewish worship.
“At all other positions throughout the Army, I am attached to a unit and serve as that unit’s chaplain, supporting all its members — Jewish and non-Jewish alike.”
Ruderman said that the USMA Jewish community meets Friday nights for Sabbath prayer service followed by a festive meal. Jewish services are held and meals are provided during major Jewish holidays.
Wednesday nights are reserved for the USMA Jewish cadet choir practice. The choir performs at local communities and other USMA events.
On Sunday afternoons, Ruderman brings in a certified instructor to teach Krav Maga, an Israeli self-defense class for Soldiers and cadets.
He also oversees a lay leadership program, which prepares Jewish cadets to assume community leadership responsibility in the military. Ruderman said most cadets will be stationed in locations that do not have a Jewish chaplain. In this program, the cadets can learn from other officers who have served as Jewish lay leaders and who have participated in leadership positions within the community.
Ruderman said that this year, Jewish cadets attended the Aleph Institute military training conference, the premier conference and support network for Jews in the military. The conference was supported by the West Point Jewish Chapel Fund, an organization of mostly USMA graduates that supports Jewish and non-Jewish initiatives at West Point.
Ruderman graduated from Ithaca College in New York in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. In 2006, he graduated from Yeshivat HaMivtar University in Efrat, Israel with a master’s degree in rabbinical ordination.
From 2006 to 2010, Ruderman was a campus rabbi at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, serving in various community leadership roles. He taught Judaism classes with the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern studies. Ruderman led holiday worship services, and conducted counseling sessions to students and parents as well.
In 2007, a student’s father, who was an Army chaplain, visited the campus to talk to the students about being a rabbi to Soldiers in Iraq, Ruderman said.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, you can be a rabbi and do that?’ It was then that I decided to be an Army chaplain,” he said. “I went home that night and said to my wife, ‘I’m joining the Army.’ ”
In 2012, Ruderman completed the Army chaplain basic officer leadership course at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, S.C.
Ruderman said that his commander at the time, now-retired Lt. Col. Lawrence Baker, saw that he was new to the Army and wanted to provide him with experiences that would strengthen him, and enhance his ability to provide spiritual support to Soldiers.
Baker encouraged Ruderman to attend airborne school. In 2013, he completed U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga.
Baker also sent him on two brief deployments to Afghanistan to serve as an individual augmentee to provide religious support during the Passover holiday season a few years ago.
During his second deployment, Ruderman had his most memorable experience so far in the Army. Jewish and non-Jewish personnel came from all over Afghanistan in 2013 in to celebrate Passover.
“It was truly a sight to behold, almost 100 service men and women from so many different military communities, some risking significant hazard to get there, to celebrate the festival of freedom together,” Ruderman said of Passover Seders.
The Seder is a ritual dinner during which the story of the Exodos is told and the narrative of God rescuing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery is passed on to the young generation, he explained.
“I think it was the only Seders in the country,” Ruderman said.
Other memorable moments came from 2014 to 2016, when Ruderman served with the 1/214th Aviation Regiment in Wiesbaden, Germany. He provided counseling, taught a Bible study, taught biblical Hebrew, taught suicide prevention workshops and led weekend retreats for families as well as single Soldiers.
While stationed there, Ruderman said he took a bus of Soldiers and spouses from his brigade to tour Dachau concentration camp in July 2014.
“Obviously, it was a pretty sobering experience,” Ruderman said. “It was significant for the unit to contemplate the disregard of human life, which occurred <FZ,1,0,35>there when a global movement decided that targeting outside religions and ethnic groups would solve their problems.
“It really made us appreciate the importance of U.S. military might.”
Ruderman has a special passion for learning and teaching Hebrew to beginners.
“Once you get past the Hebrew alphabet of 22 letters, Hebrew is actually an easy language to learn,” Ruderman said. “The language opens doors to communicate and understand people and in this case, access the holy texts of my faith.
“It’s amazing to speak a language that is ancient, going back to the early days of our civilization, and is perfectly modern and current as well.”
Ruderman is starting his second year of teaching modern Hebrew in the Department of Foreign Languages at the academy.
In June, he took a group of six cadets to tour Israel. They also studied Hebrew at a language immersion school, toured Jerusalem and learned about the modern military history of the city.
Ruderman said that his goal is to empower U.S. service members to access and understand Israel via the Hebrew language and improved cultural proficiency.
Ruderman volunteers with Tomche Shabbos, an organization that provides food packages to needy families in the community where he and his family live in Suffern, N.Y. He said that participating in Tomche Shabbos seemed a natural expression of his religious and military values while giving him the opportunity to exercise the Army value of selfless service.
“I participate in Tomche Shabbos and I hope to start bringing West Point cadets and community members,” Ruderman said. “I want them to learn, through action, how important it is to be a contributing force in society and to help others.”
When asked to describe himself, Ruderman said there is a great story about Rabbi Meshulam Zusha, an 18th-century Hasidic master from Poland known as “Reb Zusha.”
Reb Zusha was lying on his death bed crying. His students asked him:
“Rabbi, why are you crying? You were as great as Moses, as great as Abraham. Surely you have nothing to fear from the next world.”
Reb Zusha replied: “In the next world they won’t ask me why wasn’t I like Moses or like Abraham. They’ll ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why wasn’t I true to myself?”
Ruderman said that he believes that we all should be true to ourselves and trust the path that God lays before us.
Ruderman and his wife, Ariella, will celebrate 16 years of marriage this year with their five children.
“I’m a family man,” he said. “I’m neither brilliant nor a physical training stud, but I’m willing to work hard and have just enough God-given ability to be ‘making it’ in the best job in the Army. Anyone who knows me knows it’s true.”
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a four-part series exploring how chaplains of different faiths serve all Soldiers.