Rabbi Warren delights Beth El with Veterans Day talk

by | Nov 24, 2019 | Other News

Yoni Warren is a man of many titles. On Sunday, November 10, he merged them all in a pre-Veterans Day talk during a Men’s Club bagel brunch at Congregation Beth El.

Rabbi Warren, a lieutenant and Navy chaplain, educated and entertained a crowd of congregants and students on the topic, Build it, Bridge it, or Blow it up: Lessons in Torah and Soul from an Engineer Battalion in the United States Marine Corps.

Using his own brand of humor and humility, the 6’4″ Rabbi Warren cited chapter and verse from the Bible and the Mishna that closely tied Judaism and Marine Corps life. Both require a bit of suffering that ultimately leads to happiness, he said.

For instance, Psalms 128:2, “You shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink; you shall sleep on the ground, your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor. Happy shall you be.”

Or as the Marine Corps puts it, “Embrace the suck.”

Warren, a Hampton native and Hebrew Academy of Tidewater graduate, is the husband of Leora Skolnik and father to young girls Calanit and Meirav. He related his path from the University of Maryland to the Jewish Theological Seminary to military service. His three-year tour has become eight. And his plan to be aboard a Navy ship instead led him to Okinawa, Japan, where he found himself in a Marine Corps explosives unit. “I may have been a little too eager,” he said. “But they had professionals to protect us.”

In chaplain training, he learned to be a pastor to all religions. “Some chaplains handle the rule of no proselytizing better than others,” he noted. In addition to organizing various religious services, he is a counselor to sailors dealing with “Dear John letters,” those feeling suicidal, and many who become angry from spending too much time cooped up below deck.

Keeping kosher in the field or aboard ship is a challenge, but less so if one can deal with eating a lot of eggs or salad. And, though he literally wears his Judaism on his uniform sleeves, anti-Semitism is rarely a problem. There are estimates of about 3,000 Jews in the Navy, many of whom live in anonymity, Warren said.

Just as in the Marines, “most things in life can be built, bridged or blown up,” said Warren, who now is chaplain at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.

“Building” can mean a constant state of learning, be that Torah or other topics. “Bridging” can mean creating cooperative relationships. And “blowing something up” means embracing change or “transcending the moment.”

Even the Marine Corps slogan, “Semper Fidelis or “Always Faithful” sounds quite Jewish. It embodies the precepts of courage, honor, and commitment that we should all live by, he said.

Rabbi Warren’s talk came not only on the day before Veterans Day, but also on the weekend convergence of the anniversaries of kristallnacht (the beginning of the Holocaust in 1938); the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; and the birthday of the Marine Corps in 1775.

He closed out the morning by leading the congregants—many of them veterans—in hymns to their respective military branches. And, of course, in a prayer for the safety of those who serve.

Would a rabbi-chaplain-officer do it any other way?

Mark Kozak