The High Holidays can be a stressful time, but even more so when under mortar fire. That’s an experience Rabbi Irving Elson knows all too well, having served as a chaplain in the Navy and Marines for 35 years.
In that time he was deployed to Iraq for Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He made a career connecting Jews to their spirituality while in harsh conditions. And despite all the danger, he misses it.
Elson, 60, is a member of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac and lives in North Bethesda. He retired from the armed services in 2016 after becoming the first Jew to serve as deputy chaplain of the Marines.
Today, Elson directs the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a signature program of the JCC Association of North America, where he recruits rabbis to serve in the armed forces and advises the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs on Jewish-related matters.
Elson was born and raised in Mexico City. His mother was the daughter of Polish immigrants and his father a native of Detroit. They met when Elson’s father traveled to Mexico for vacation.
Elson and his family attended a Conservative synagogue in the Mexican capital. There he was mentored by the rabbi, who inspired him to become one himself. Another influence was Elson’s father, who was a Marine and a Korean War veteran.
“My dad, being a Marine, felt very strongly and inculcated in me a sense of service and patriotism. And so I said, ‘Well, if I’m going to be a rabbi, and I really want to serve my country, then I really want to do it as a chaplain.’ So that’s what I did.”
In 1978, he enrolled at Yeshiva University in New York. While in school he married his wife, Fran Dishler, and the couple would go on to have three kids together. Elson was ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1987. Two weeks later, Elson volunteered for active duty as a chaplain in the Navy. He planned to serve for three years. But it turned out that wasn’t enough for him.
“Once I finished those first three years, they were such an amazing adventure for my wife and me that we kept on saying, ‘Well, how about three more?’ And then [the Navy] kept on sending us to interesting places and interesting jobs,” Elson said. “So that didn’t make it any easier to leave.”
As a chaplain, Elson worked to accommodate the religious needs of Jewish sailors. Elson said that belonging to a minority group can come with its own challenges.
“There’s a lot of pressure [that] you need to be that Jew that’s going to be the first Jew that people have met,” Elson said. “When I talked to sailors and Marines, [I told them] you can’t be a jerk, because you’re representing the entire Jewish people. It’s a hard experience. But it’s a very gratifying experience.”
In 2003, during the Second Gulf War, Elson was deployed to Iraq to serve as Jewish chaplain for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. At the time, he was the only rabbi stationed with the Marines in that country. He said he held the first Shabbat service [for the Marines] and the first Passover seder, all under threat of gunfire.
“Going to a combat zone, you’re always scared. You’re always tired. You’re always hungry.”
Despite the danger, Elson said he wasn’t concerned for his safety because “I had full confidence in the people around me. Also, I had an entire battalion of Marines around me, too.”
One of Elson’s most memorable experiences in Iraq occurred during the Battle of An Nasiriya in March 2003. Elson’s unit was attacked by Iraqi Republican Guards, leading to a heavy firefight. As a non-combatant, Elson was unarmed but had a personal bodyguard, known as a religious program specialist or RPS, assigned to him.
“This was in day three of the war. And we got ambushed,” Elson said. “The Marines all jump out and start shooting and [my RPS, Robert Page] literally threw me out of the vehicle. And look, I’m not a small guy. I’m over 6 feet tall. Over 200 pounds. He threw me out of the vehicle and laid on top of me and returned fire and protected me with his whole body. So he did that a total of three times in different instances. So a pretty remarkable guy and he’s my friend and my brother to this day.”
(Page was honored with a Bronze Star for his actions.)
Elson’s second deployment to Iraq in 2004 landed him in the middle of the Second Battle for Fallujah. The fight happened during the High Holidays.
“If you look at the liturgy, the prayers for the holidays, some are very stark, and being in combat during that magnifies it a thousand percent,” Elson said. “Imagine chanting, ‘On Rosh Hashanah it is written who shall live who shall die.’ And there was a mortar attack just as we were saying that. So it just centers everything. Anything and everything you’re saying, again, is just magnified.”
Elson and his family moved to Washington five years ago, after his job as the Marines’ deputy chaplain led him to work out of the Pentagon. Upon retiring from the armed services in 2016, he and his wife decided to stay in the area after falling in love with the Jewish community. Elson’s retirement was mandatory and, he said, If he could return to active service, he would.
“I would in a heartbeat,” he said. “I miss the people, the sense of mission and, to be honest with you, the adventure, too.”