First rabbi to head national military chaplaincy organization

JWB Jewish Chaplains Council Director Harold Robinson will be the first rabbi to serve as chair of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF), an organization that represents a spectrum of faith organizations that serve as endorsers for military chaplains.

Robinson, a retired rear admiral, will assume the two-year position at NCMAF during its conference that begins on January 15. He will be the first Jew to serve as the head of the organization.

“NCMAF is one of the very few places where Americans gather across religious boundaries for the betterment of all and in service to the young men and women who risk so much for this country,” says Robinson. “I am deeply humbled by the extraordinary responsibility and trust placed upon my by my college in ministry to the armed forces.”

Robinson has served as JWB’s representative to NCMAF since 2007 and has been a member of the executive committee since 2009. The organization plays an influential role in shaping military chaplaincy, he says, and in fostering understanding among the chaplains of different faiths. “That way, they are better able to serve our people in places here our chaplains are not present,” he says.

Since 2005, Robinson has served as the director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a program of JCC Association that provides support and advocacy for Jewish men and women serving in the United States military, Veterans Administration and to their families. He will continue in that role while serving as chair of NCMAF.

According to David Posner, JCC Association vice president for JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, Robinson has accomplished much for JWB, including increased recruitment of rabbis to serve in military chaplaincy; Torahs for Our Troops, which provides small, portable Torahs to front-line situations; and the placement in Arlington National Cemetery of a permanent memorial to the 14 Jewish chaplains who died while in service to their country.

“He is a fierce advocate for military chaplaincy and the spiritual needs of military personnel, and he will continue that role as NCMAF president on behalf of all faiths,” Posner says.

Robinson is well respected among his peers at NCMAF and well suited to lead the organization, according to his predecessor in the position, Keith Travis, the retired team leader of chaplaincy at the North American Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“He’s respected by the people,” says Travis. “They know that Harold is a rabbi, of course, but they know that he will listen.”

For an organization that values its goal of serving the military as a higher purpose, while catering to a multitude of faiths, this is important, Travis says. “You don’t really leave your faith at the door,” he says. “You carry it at all times. But you have to be respectful. We may not agree theologically, but we do have mutual respect and our real purpose and goal is to serve the military.”

Robinson was ordained as a rabbi from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and commissioned as a Navy chaplain in 1975. Overseas active duty assignments have included Italy, Scotland, Iceland, Japan, Guam, Bahrain, and Djibouti. He has visited forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar and Kuwait. In 2000, he was assigned as Deputy Chief of Chaplains for Reserve Matters and Director of Religious Programs, Marine Force Reserve. He has received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Naval Commendation Medal with two Gold Stars, and the Navy and Marine Corps Overseas Deployment Ribbon.

NCMAF began in 1982 as a private organization, but its roots go back to 1901 when the United States War Department decided to require ecclesiastical endorsement for clergy who serve as chaplains in the armed forces. Likewise, JWB’s origins go back nearly a century, when it became the official, and at the time, only endorser of rabbis seeking to serve Jewish soldiers serving in the U.S. military during World War I.

“Harold is a dynamic leader, very insightful and he has the unique ability to get things done without drawing attention to himself or for taking the credit,” says John H. Lea, a retired Navy captain who is NCMAF’s executive director and has known Robinson for 20 years. “But everyone knows that whatever organization he is serving is better because of his service.”

The Jewish Light