5 questions for Rabbi Sanford Shudnow

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Rabbi-chaplain-Eagle Scout-artist Sanford Shudnow is also a member of the International Brotherhood of
Magicians.
Photo by Noreen Friedman

By Noreen Friedman

Rabbi Sanford Shudnow is a retired Navy chaplain who divides his time between Silver Spring and Sydney, Australia, where his wife has family. A fervent Boy Scout since childhood, Shudnow, 72, has since earned merit badges as rabbi, military chaplain, speaker and
columnist, artist and magician.


You’re an Eagle Scout, the highest achievement level in the Boy Scouts of America. What initially interested you in scouting?

I am from a very patriotic family who came to the U.S. from Europe in the 1880s. My dad was the 13th child in a family that was gung-ho about both America and Judaism. I had lots of uncles and cousins who were in scouting. In Chicago, where I grew up, my synagogue sponsored a troop, which I entered as a Cub Scout.

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You were a chaplain in the Navy for 22 years. What attracted you to military service and how did you decide to become a chaplain?

Many in my family served in the Navy. An active Eagle Scout, I became both an Explorer Scout and Sea Explorer. I really enjoyed wearing the sailor-type uniform.


While studying at Northern Illinois University outside of Chicago, I intended to become a naval officer. Later, in rabbinic school, I met people who had served in Vietnam on ships, including one student with lots of service medals who discussed his desire to be a Navy chaplain. So, that’s what I decided to do. In 1976, I became a Hillel rabbi at the University of Miami. At the same time, I joined the Navy.

As a chaplain, you served here and abroad. What was a memorable Jewish experience from that time?

At Shabbat Minchah services in Marseilles, the newly appointed chief rabbi of France recognized me and then I was asked to provide the d’var Torah at the ensuing seudah [meal]. Not knowing French, I delivered it in Hebrew. In rabbinical school we learned to always be ready to speak.

Where did you gain your Hebrew fluency and where else did it become handy?

I studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate levels. When I was with the 6th Fleet, our ship would dock at the port of Haifa and Israeli police would board the ship. In uniform, I greeted them in Hebrew. This resulted in my being covered in Israeli newspaper articles and having meetings with the chief rabbis of the Israeli Navy and Israeli Defense Forces.

I also appeared on a talk show on Israel’s one TV channel. Handling the interview in fluent Hebrew, I was honored at the show’s end with the orchestra’s playing the song “Eliezer Ben-Yehudah” [founder of modern Hebrew].

You create artwork — Jewish themes, still life, landscape. Tell me about your technique.

It is a hobby. Since I was 4 years old, I have been into photography. While stationed at the Great Lakes, I read in a magazine about an image transfer technique where you take a photographic image and transfer it to another medium. Using a Polaroid gel image transferred to watercolor paper, I would add coloring.

More recently, I have enhanced works with texturing techniques. At synagogue, I have photographed guys praying then making portrait art which I have shared as gifts and at shivah gatherings.

And you’re a magician, too?

For decades, I have been a member of the Society of American Magicians — Houdini was one of the presidents — and the International Brotherhood of Magicians, “Order of Merlin.” As a child, my mother would take me to the toy section of Marshall Field’s department store, where magicians performed tricks. My father was into kibitzing and trickery and I enjoyed playing with cards, coins and scarves. While stationed in Japan, I performed magic shows on ships, at the Tokyo Jewish Community Center and local institutions such as orphanages.

At my home, I hosted Japanese magicians who did not speak English. We communicated by the practice of magic.

Noreen Friedman is a Washington-area writer.

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