Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff is a retired, decorated chaplain for the United States Navy, providing guidance to service members for 25 years after his own service and combat career in the Vietnam War ended. A kind, humble man, he has been a part of several significant pieces of military history, including delivering the prayer at the ceremony repealing the military’s anti-LGBTQ, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, helping to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, working tirelessly to have the U.S. military participate in the U.S. Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, and having his firsthand account of the 1983 Beirut bombing that claimed the lives of 241 American military personnel read in a speech by President Reagan.
Can you tell me how you believe you’ve impacted the lives of Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers over your 25-year career as a chaplain?
I hope that I’ve helped people who are afraid, people who are lonely, people who are suffering. I like to say that my most dramatic experience was in Beirut after a terrorist attack. But in a way, my most important and rewarding one was when I was Senior Chaplain through the bootcamp. The Navy was larger, at one point it had three boot camps, I was Senior Chaplain for the one in Orlando. And so many of the young men and women, including the Jewish ones, wanted to quit. The other chaplains [and I] knew if they quit, it could continue this process of quitting [for] the rest of their lives. If they could make it through bootcamp, we felt that they could make it through anything. There was one Jewish recruit from an Iranian family who wanted to quit, and I spent so much time with him. He was so proud when he graduated, that his parents started a scholarship fund in my honor at the Jewish Theological Seminary to help rabbinical students who decided to be Jewish chaplains.
You’ve consistently fought for the rights of minority groups in the military, and you were chosen as the person to deliver the prayer at the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Why are those causes so important to you?
When President Obama repealed the policy that forced anyone gay to keep it a secret, I was very proud that because of the work I had been fighting for regarding the rights of all people, I was asked to give the prayer. I should say, it was very personal for me because I’m the oldest of three boys. My middle brother, whose name was Joel, was gay, and he was one of the very early victims of AIDS. So, whenever I fought for the rights of people who were gay, I always hoped he was looking with pride on what I was trying to do.
Why did you decide to go to rabbinical school after your service?
The reason I went in the military was my father; he was three years old when his family escaped from Russia to America. My grandfather was a rabbi in Russia. So, my father raised me to think that at some point, especially as the oldest of his three sons, of going into the military, not for a career, but just one assignment to help repay our dues … I went straight from college to the rivers of Vietnam. And in the rivers of Vietnam, there was a circuit riding chaplain for the Mekong Delta. Nobody in the rivers had enough people to justify their own chaplain. So, the Christian chaplain circuit rode throughout the Mekong Delta, and when he visited my ship and he discovered that I was Jewish, he made me what we call the Jewish lay leader for my ship … after I left that service, this Christian chaplain kept talking to me, engaging with me, ultimately planting the seed in my mind that I should become a rabbi.
How do you feel that the role of rabbis and other chaplains helps to guide the military?
When I was the chaplain for the European Command, I was the first rabbi to ever get to that level. They are the highest operational officers after the President and the Secretary of Defense, the four-star generals and admirals that are in charge of all services under them in a very broad area. I worked for Wesley Clark, who, by the way, a lot of people don’t know, his biological father was Jewish … In that position, I worked with countries around the world, and I held a Chief of Chaplains conference for all of them. And I was struck with how different the American chaplaincy than many other countries. [Some foreign] chaplains can only talk to people of his or her own religion of the country. Other chaplains can talk to people of other religions, but to no one non-religious. In America, the three roles that were taught to us at chaplain school were: number one, minister to his own, that means I’ll always be a rabbi to the Jews, but secondly, we facilitate ministry of other faiths. That means I’ll never hold the Catholic service or Muslim service, but it’s my responsibility to make sure they’re held in that they have the right books, the right items, prayer rugs for the Muslims and rosaries for the Catholics that they need. And finally, and this is what really makes us different, we care for all, including those who have no faith. So many of the people who came to me did not have religious questions. They had human questions, human struggles, and they wanted to talk to someone. And then of course, we advise our commands and our commanding officers when it comes to issues of morals and ethics and values. So, the chaplain is extremely important in the American military.
What’s a particular highlight of your career?
I’ve given many prayers in my life, including many in Congress. I’m proudest of the one after the military became a part of the [Holocaust] Days of Remembrance initiative. We had a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda and I gave the prayer, and of all the prayers I’ve given, this line gives me more pride than any other: “The day has not yet dawned when we can see the face of God in a neighbor’s face, then let us see at least a face as human as our own. Today, with all the hatred, with all the extremism, I think of that prayer and how important that is, and that if we can just see the humanity in our neighbor, how the world might be different.