Face of Defense: 15th-Generation Rabbi Helps Airmen Keep Faith

By Air Force Senior Airman Tong Duong

Special to American Forces Press Service

 May 8, 2008 – The candle flame performed a slow, mesmerizing dance as it flickered from one side of the wick to the other. The light softly illuminated his face as his silhouette became a portion of the projection behind him — images of Holocaust victims. Soft-spoken yet with a stern demeanor, Chaplain (Capt.) Raphael Berdugo’s eyes glistened as he solemnly lead a prayer.  More than 30 servicemembers bowed their heads to pay their respects during the Holocaust Remembrance Vigil held at a base in Southwest Asia on May 2 to remember the more than 6 million lives lost in the Nazis’ genocide of Jews during World War Two.

 One of only nine rabbis in the Air Force and the only one in the U.S. Air Forces Central region, Berdugo’s area of responsibility extends far beyond the base.

 “I once received a call in the middle of the night from the wing chaplain of a different base, asking me what would be appropriate to do as a memorial service for a fallen Jewish servicemember,” said the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing chaplain from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.

 A 15th-generation rabbi, he said one of his many tasks includes leading his people to a righteous path.

 “First and foremost, [being a rabbi] means being a positive role model for others and a visible reminder of what’s holy,” Berdugo said. “It also involves being a representative — almost like an ambassador — for the Jewish people and helping them with their religious needs.”

 One of those religious needs is keeping a strictly kosher diet, which has been easy thanks to the efforts of the 379th Expeditionary Services Squadron members, Berdugo said, noting that he received several requests for kosher versions of the military rations known as MREs: meals, ready to eat. With the help of the services squadron, he said, several cases of kosher MREs were sent to numerous locations in the area of operations.

 Berdugo said he brings a different perspective to the table and that others enjoy asking questions about his religion and learning about Judaism.

 “I am very often the first rabbi that most airmen have ever met,” he said.

 Some are curious about the significance of his camouflage-patterned yarmulke, the small, round cap he wears on top of his head. Its origination comes from a combination of two Hebrew words — “Yare” and “Malka” — meaning “fear of the king,” he said. “Basically, we wear it to remind ourselves to be submissive to the one above.”

 Any servicemember whose faith requires the head to be covered is authorized to wear an item such as a yarmulke in uniform, the rabbi pointed out.

 With a relatively small Jewish population here, Berdugo’s religious services are only a small portion of the work he does, allowing him to focus on visitation and other aspects of a chaplain’s ministry.

 “[I am] readily accessible to the airmen in all squadrons,” he said. “After all, I am a pastoral caregiver for people of all faiths.”

 Ordained 15 years ago, Berdugo said being a Jewish religious leader was something he felt he was born to do.

 “Becoming a rabbi was something I grew into,” the father of three boys and two girls said. “Even at the young age of 12, while my parents ministered to the adults, I would minister to the children.”

 Born a British citizen in Dublin, Ireland, to Moroccan parents, Berdugo said he always has felt that a higher power had intervened and guided his path to becoming an ordained minister and ultimately joining the U.S. Air Force.

 “My education led to my becoming an ordained rabbi,” he said. “After receiving my rabbinical ordination from Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., I applied for and received my green card. I started out as a middle school teacher, and for 10 years I taught the Torah and Judaic subjects at a private Jewish school.”

 Berdugo said he thought he would end his career as a school principal, but after becoming a naturalized American citizen in 1999, he was recruited for the Air Force chaplaincy.

 “Although I joined as a reservist, I knew that one day I would become active duty,” he said.

 Military service is not new to Berdugo’s family; his uncle is serving as a chaplain in the French army. Berdugo said he would like for his children to follow in his footsteps.

 “My wish is for at least one of my five children to carry on the family tradition,” he said.

 (Air Force Senior Airman Tong Duong serves in the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs Office.)


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