Rabbi Seth Phillips
As a Navy chaplain, I have become sensitive to the implications of labels. In a world where Baptist is divided into 49 sub categories, I have always been asked at every new post or base what my denomination was. Foregoing the esoterica of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox for a clientele that had often never met a Jew, I would always reply that my denomination was “Approachable Jewish.”
As the Approachable Rabbi, I wanted to make it easy for sailors and Marines to overcome their shyness or fear or pre-conceived notions and realize that they could come to me as their counselor, encourager and spiritual resource. It was their agenda or issue that I was there for, not to save them or convert them to my way of doing things.
And it worked! “Rah-bye, would you baptize my baby when the ship gets back after six months away” didn’t mean that I was acting like a pastor or priest, but that the sailor and I had bonded for him to want me involved in the most religious moment in his family’s life. So I would arrange for the appropriate clergy to offi ciate and share the day with the happy family as their “rabbi.” It was only in Italy that calling myself the “Approachable Rabbi” created a little speed bump. The Italians were initially hesitant, thinking that I was not fully credentialed or qualified.
But smiles and a lot of pasta soon bridged the gap. And certainly at the Naval Academy, where a Muslim student told a visiting Saudi Arabian admiral, “Oh the rabbi will get you to the Muslim prayer room tomorrow,” let me know that indeed I was approachable.
A Jewish community is called a Kehilah Kedosha — a holy congregation. Those words were used in the Torah LONG before the word “rabbi” was coined. “Power to the people” is not just a ’60s slogan, but an accurate—if under emphasized—description of Jewish communal life.
Rabbi Seth Phillips comes to us after serving as a Navy Chaplain for 20 years with posts all over the globe. The past 3 years he served at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD where he was chosen to serve as Chaplain for the football team!