Shmuly Yanklowitz, a Wexner Graduate Fellow alum (Class 19), is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Development and Epistemology, and the founder of Uri L’Tzedek (The Orthodox Social Justice Movement). He can be reached at

I was asked this year to lead seder for the Jewish soldiers in Heidelberg, Germany at the U.S. Army European Headquarters and a central post to and from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although I had led different types of sederim around the world, I packed my bags with particular trepidation for this mission. Sitting alone in thought for hours, I simply could not identify the Torahs or vortlach that seemed fitting for this crowd. I sought advice from colleagues. How should I alter this seder to best speak to soldiers? How should I articulate my own identity and politics if questions arise? Some advised that I gear the whole seder to their context and military discourse and challenges. Others recommended speaking with the soldiers like normal civilians and to try to emulate a seder like it is celebrated back home. I took both pieces of advice attempting to lead an energized and dynamic standard seder while also including appropriate seder moral teachings for war. Having never served in the army, I tried to articulate with confidence the Torah value of not rejoicing at the downfall of the enemy (“beenfol oyeevkha al teesmach, uveekashlo al yagail leebekha”; Mishlei 11:10, Avot 4:19). We all dropped wine from our glasses in unison but this was not historical but existential. The emotions of victory and defeat were in their personal narratives and I was blessed to accompany.

My hasaiba (leaning) joke about the heter (allowance) of civil disobedience on this note flopped (blank stares) but I recovered and overall I think the evening was quite successful and I was shocked to see everyone stay the full three hours aside from one soldier who seemed particularly distressed.

Walking late at night around the base and around the military homes where the soldiers leave their spouses and children to ship off to combat, the reality of how human these wars are humbled me as they began to sink in much more profoundly than my cozy upper west side ethical war discourse had ever allowed for. After leading evening tefillot, I sang a Mishebairach and requested the names of loved ones who were ill. Before I finished my request, a woman bursted out in uncontrollable sobs with her story (one of many shared). I hadn’t been prepared to do group counseling within a prayer context.

My brief rabbinical chaplaincy transcended Jewish denominations and more formatively for the first time in years my American identity transcended a political framework. A sense of duty to the Jewish people and to the American people was reshaped for me.

A Protestant Chaplain who was helping out that evening told me a story that has stuck with me. He flew in to battle with the first group of ground troops in Iraq to offer spiritual support as the war began. He reflected to me on the first week when the general commanded a dangerous mission. Talking with the soldiers, this chaplain saw that they didn’t feel prepared. The chaplain approached the general to inform him that these young men and women were very scared. The general proceeded by blasting the chaplain and then dismissed him with anger for having such chutzpah and audacity to challenge him. Two hours later, the general called in the troops to further elucidate the plans of the mission and to support the soldiers. The minister saw what the general could not: the human emotions of war and he had a serious impact upon their well-being and sense of security.

At that moment, listening to this minister’s story, I learned a core goal for my rabbinate: to learn the life missions of those I serve and to join their emotional journeys as their advocate. When the cries of fear echo in the night, will I be able to stand up to the general to give voice to the silent trepidation of the soldier?