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2006 Convention: Tending to an Army's Seoul
Chaplain Avraham Horovitz Honored at the RCA Convention
 
 
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May 16, 2006 -- Wandering through the corridors of the convention, he had the air of a 35 year old American rabbi who works out to stay in shape. Except for the ramrod posture. And the curious accent--two parts English, one part Israeli. Oh--and the uniform.

Avraham Horovitz is a 45 year old grandfather, who has spent the last eight years in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Korea, tending to the souls of Jewish American soldiers, and, in the process, touching the souls of the disenfranchised, disenchanted, and disconnected, in circumstances where religion and nationality cease to be barriers.

He was in New Jersey last week to accept an award at the national convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest umbrella organization in the world for Orthodox rabbis. But he presented his colleagues with more than a plaque to remember him by—the example of his career and its many kindnesses is one of the more inspirational things over 200 rabbis took home with them to their congregations.

What caused a pulpit Rabbi to leave his congregation for parts unknown? “The United States military is the greatest force for peace the world has ever known,” he says, “and I wanted to be a part of that.”

In fact, he exchanged one congregation for another. His new congregants may not be knowledgeable—like the Israeli colonel at an air show, who, thanks to Horovitz, heard the Scroll of Esther read for the first time in his life. They may not be religiously affiliated—like the Israeli who said that the last time he’d handled a lulav and etrog on Sukkot was when a Chabad Rabbi brought them to the trenches during the early days of the Yom Kippur War. Often, they may not even be Jewish—most of a chaplain’s time is spent counseling servicemen of all faiths.

His educational role extends to the civilian population, as well. Strengthening their commitment to the seven Noachide laws, he teaches a weekly Talmud class to 100 non-Jewish Koreans. “They are fascinated by Gemarah; they even have children’s storybooks of Talmudic stories.” He relates his experiences to the Kabbalistic concept of the “elevation of sparks,” which posits that Jews have been sent into the furthest corners of the world in order to locate scattered traces of sanctity and return them to their source. “After all, Jacob was told that he would expand his boundaries to the west, east, north and south—you can’t go any further east than Korea!”

Even as Horovitz unearths the spark of Jewishness in so many souls, he has also found time for excavating of a more concrete type—the locating and documenting of archeological sites of great import for the Jewish people. After the initial stage of the Iraq war, Horovitz sought permission from a Marine Chaplain to visit the city of Kifel, (which means “hope,”) in order to see the supposed tomb of the prophet Ezekiel. A sympathetic General approved a military convoy, the key was procured from an Imam, and soon his party was the first group of Jews to visit the grave in fifty years. From the ruins purported to be from the Tower of Babel, to the palace of Nebuchadnezer, scene of the famous “writing on the wall,” he has served as the eyes and camera of the Jewish people.

Horovitz’s military career has come at a price to his family, but has borne unexpected benefits for them, as well. His postings have separated him from his family for months at a time. Frequent moves are the lot of any chaplain’s family, and that takes a toll on the education of children. He has often had to send his children out of town to find a suitable school, and his youngest is being home schooled. On the other hand, when he was reassigned to Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville, N.C., he met and studied with a young man, who enthusiastically absorbed all he taught. Today that young man is his son-in-law, and father of his grandchild.

Son of a pioneering educator--in 1970 his father founded Yeshivat Dvar Yerushalayim for returnees to Judaism-- he notes an ironic contrast between himself and his father’s early students: “Many of them had long hair and beads, and had joined the Yeshiva to avoid the Viet Nam war. Now many of them are Rabbis in Israeli Yeshivot, and I’ve joined the military they so carefully avoided.”

He knew he was on the right path, when, after announcing his intentions to join the military chaplaincy, he was approached by one of the senior members of his congregation. “He had tears in his eyes, and tried to explain to me why he was so touched by my choice. ‘Rabbi, I spent the end of the war in Buchenwald, and the man who liberated me was a Jewish soldier in the American army. He introduced me to the army chaplain, Rabbi Hershel Schacter, who personally helped me reclaim my life. Be a chaplain like Rabbi Schacter!’” In a poetic touch, the day after Horovitz received his award from the RCA, Rabbi Schacter was given an award for upwards of 55 years of service to the Jewish community.

What kind of questions does the only Rabbi in Korea have to answer? Oh, the standard fare, like what the proper day is to read the Megillah in Seoul—the fourteenth of Adar, like most cities, or the fifteenth, like walled cities. Seoul was a walled city, but did it have a wall in the days of Joshua, whose era was set as the crucial one? For Avraham Horovitz, tending souls in Seoul, walls cannot separate Jews, and the lessons of ancient Persia are very much alive in our time.

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