Jewish Chaplain at VA Hospital Is a Bit of a Novelty

Aaron Rozovsky is spending his summer in Louisville this year. He’s working at the Robley Rex Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Louisville’s VA Hospital), and in doing so, he is bringing Judaism formally into the facility for the first time in memory – perhaps for the first time ever.

Captain Rozovsky is a National Guard Reservist and a fourth year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati. He is at the point in his studies where he is expected to do a unit of clinical pastoral education and he chose to do it as a chaplain at Louisville’s VA Hospital.

While most people choose to do their CPE unit in Cincinnati, for Rozovsky, who has been in the Rhode Island National Guard for 10 years and has been deployed twice – once to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and once to Afghanistan, the VA Hospital seemed a natural choice.

At the VA, he explained, “We meet with patients and staff; we provide spiritual comfort; and we perform religious services. Being a Jewish chaplain, I’m able to bring Jewish services which they usually don’t have.”

The Jewish service is scheduled for Wednesday mornings, and Rozovsky says the service he leads, using prayer books on loan from Rabbi David Ariel-Joel at The Temple, is “a shacharit/mincha hybrid.” (Shacharit is the morning service and mincha is the afternoon service.) Most of those in attendance are not Jewish and have never experienced a Jewish service. Many of them are chaplains from other denominations and they come to learn about Judaism.

“The veterans love having a Jewish presence,” he said. “Sometimes and I’ll say, ‘may I offer you the priestly benediction’ and some of them are familiar with it. I’ll say can, ‘I do it in Hebrew and English.’ And they say, ‘O, my gosh. I’m 65 years old and I’ve never been blessed in Hebrew before.’ So it’s fun for them and it’s fun for me.”

Rozovsky is from Greenville, RI, and is in the Rhode Island National Guard. “I love this country,” he stated. “I love everything it stands for. I love the diversity. I love the freedom of religion”

He was starting his sophomore year in high school when 9/11 happened. “It felt like our whole system of values and everything we stood for was under attack and I wanted to give back. I wanted to do something, and I finally realized the best way to do that was to be in uniform.”

“I enlisted in ROTC and the National Guard on the same day in 2006,” he said. “I was commissioned in 2008 and I haven’t looked back.” His service enabled him to work and train with people from across country and around the world. He even spent a year working with the IDF. “The Army’s become a second family to me,” he added.”

As a member of the National Guard, Rozovsky is required to train one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. All first year students in HUC’s rabbinic program spend the first year in Jerusalem. This was not a problem however.

All state National Guard programs have international partners – Rhode Island is partnered with the Bahamas; Kentucky is partnered with Ecuador; etc. Often military personnel from partnered service groups serve together when they are deployed. Israel’s Pikud Ha-Oref, Homefront Command, is partnered with the National Guard Bureau, the coordinating agency for the entire National Guard, and the two groups have parallel domestic missions, primarily in the area of disaster response.

“I worked with their trauma psychologist,” he explained, “looking how they do things like paths to resiliency, suicide prevention and post-traumatic stress response. It was fascinating and I really enjoyed it.

His two counterparts worked at Tel Hai University and a mental trauma center in Kiryat Shmona, and Rozovsky worked with them in Tel Hai and Metulla. In addition, he did “staff rides” for the Rhode Island National Guard, for which he visited battlefields and museums, took hundreds of pictures and wrote about the places’ significance, tactics and strategies, essentially creating a virtual staff ride.

Rozovsky wasn’t always on course to become a rabbi. He explained that during his first deployment in Cuba, his job was to visit soldiers while they worked long, lonely hours at entry control points, guard towers and in similarly isolated outposts. He enjoyed visiting with them and talking about their lives and their plans to help make the hours pass.

Since he was the only Jewish person in the 200-person unit, he also got a lot of questions about Judaism. He’d ask the person who posed the question, “Do you want the five second answer or do you want a good answer.” When the questioner wanted a good answer, Rozovsky would research it before answering.

One of the other squad leaders, who had been a chaplain associate on a previous deployment, said to him, “Sir, you love helping people, you love being pastoral, you love studying Judaism and you’re Jewish. You know the Army’s always hunting for rabbis. You know, sir, you should become a rabbi.”

At first Rozovsky dismissed the idea, but one day, he realized his colleague was right. “I wanted to get back to the Jewish people and the Jewish faith and I figured, why not?”

Rozovsky had always been active in Jewish life. While he was growing up in Richmond, VA, his father was president of their Conservative synagogue. When they moved to Rhode Island, they belonged to Temple Beth-El in Providence, where Rabbi Les Gutterman served for 42 years. “He is just a real mentsch, a tsaddik,” said Rozovsky.

While he remembers spending a summer at Camp Ramah and participated in BBYO as a teen, Rozovsky said, “The place that really let me get my Judaism, that really made me feel good and whole about Judaism was the army.”

“My Hebrew was never very good,” Rozovsky recounted, (although he is fluent in Spanish) so when he made his decision to become a Rabbi, he sought a Hebrew teacher. By that time, he was stationed in Afghanistan, so he went to the chaplain’s office.

All the chaplains there were Protestant, but he asked if anyone spoke Hebrew. “I just heard moans,” he continued, “because apparently that and Greek are the two hardest things in Christian seminary, from what they tell me.

“Then all of a sudden I hear a guy, ‘so you want to learn Hebrew?” he recalled. “I said, yes sir.” When the speaker emerged from behind the door, Rozovsky found himself facing one of the battalion chaplains. He was a Lutheran pastor with the Nebraska National Guard who spoke English, Hebrew and Japanese. Rozovsky had found his teacher.

In addition to his military background, Rozovsky has a BA in history from Providence College and a MS in international studies from Central Connecticut State University. He has a number of publications, including his Master’s thesis on the Argentine military and seven magazine and newspaper articles.

“I just finished two years as a student rabbi up in Petoskey MI,” he said. “It was a wonderful relationship. They are wonderful people. I absolutely loved it. Starting in August, I’m going to be the student rabbi in Terre Haute, IN.”

For now, though, Rozovsky concluded, “I’m very glad I’m here this summer. I’m glad I’m in Louisville. I’m glad I’m at the VA and I’m glad I’m at the Louisville VA.”

Leave a Reply