By Deb Silverthorn
Making a minyan on the base at U.S. Army post Fort Hood, just outside Killeen, isn’t always an easy task but services go on thanks to the spirit of dedicated soldiers. Preparing for the High Holy Days, when a greater audience is expected to gather, is an order tall and mighty — not one by which they’ll accept defeat.
Since early summer Fort Hood has been without a chaplain on base. The soldier serving in that capacity, Capt. Rabbi Karyn Berger, was deployed just weeks after her arrival to support U.S. troops and NATO allies in Europe. Berger was raised in Dallas and is the daughter of Bobbie and Rabbi Murray Berger. Taking the charge since this summer to lead services is 25-year-old 1st Lt. Yael Diamond, of Orlando, Florida.
“Yael is extraordinary and yet typical of most of my lieutenants in who she is and how she serves, and that is with complete dedication,” said Berger, whose conversation was cut short as she was called to mission. “I’m grateful and thankful for the Jewish life at Fort Hood, for how it is continuing in my absence, and I look forward to returning, whenever that may be.”
Diamond, who is mature well beyond her years, has been leading Shabbat services on base. Certified as an official Jewish Lay Leader by the Jewish Welfare Board, the assistant operations officer at 4-5 Battalion, 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade from Orlando, Florida, is proud to serve the Jewish soldiers, veterans and base neighbors in providing community.
“I grew up in day school, at Chabad, Camp Ramah, at the JCC and I went to summer school, and also four weeks at seminary, in Israel. I’m well-versed, and my Judaism is so much who I am,” said Diamond, whose fascination with Israel’s Iron Dome defense inspired her to serve as she now does. “My first deployment as a soldier was to Israel for 11 months — a Jewish life is my life.”
Before Berger’s arrival at Fort Hood (her second there as she previously served there from 2012 to 2015) and Diamond’s arrival last spring, it was primarily Capt. Menachem Felzenberg, his wife Emily and Navy veteran Gidon Paulman who led the Jewish community for more than a year. Before that, for more than two years it was Rabbi Dovid Egert.
“Jewish life on base,” said Felzenberg, “is not a given but we are indeed a team and it’s a collaborative effort.”
To have a village, it takes a village. The closest Jewish communities to Fort Hood are at least an hour away in Waco or Austin, the closest kosher meat at the latter location.
“Yael does a good job, she covers the Torah parasha and she has a beautiful heart,” said retired U.S. Army medic George Wankmueller, who with his wife Jenny attends services.
With the High Holy Days upon us, Diamond and others are working fervently to provide meaningful services for their community. While she conducts Shabbat services, it was beyond her comfort to do so on these holiest of days.
Chaplain Rabbi Dovid Grossman is set to lead services for Rosh Hashanah, and he hopes for Yom Kippur as well. It will be a return visit, as Rabbi Grossman served the Fort Hood community last year for the High Holy Days, finding it to be committed, filled with wonderful people and a meaningful experience.
“Whether we are a minyan, less or more — no Jew should be left behind and I so look forward to being in Texas,” said Grossman, who with nine children has a son serving in the U.S. Marines and another in the U.S. Air Force. Now living in Chicago, Illinois, he served as a Chabad shaliach for 35 years before founding the Institute for Jewish Chaplaincy and becoming a chaplain, and aerial photographer, with the Civil Air Patrol. “We’ll be learning, davening, a mixture of both and I know it will be meaningful.”
As Yom Kippur falls Oct. 4 and 5, just days after the start of the U.S. government’s fiscal year, Rabbi Grossman has not yet been given a contract, and his travel and accommodations cannot yet be solidified for that holiday. If the U.S. government’s budget is not completed by the new fiscal year, Congress must pass a continuing resolution authorizing temporary funding at the previous year’s levels or face a government shutdown.
While the base cannot raise funds, support can be shared to help the Jewish community of Fort Hood, and money sent there could be used, if necessary, to bring in Rabbi Grossman (or for any other need the community deems necessary). If U.S. funding ultimately clears, then the community would have the funds to add to their budget.
Keeping Fort Hood’s Jewish community steeped in Jewish life are a number of organizations including the Jewish Soldiers Project. The Rochester, New York–based agency sends close to 100 care packages each holiday and, in 2021, sent 6,000 Hanukkah cards from students in 35 states to many installations, including Fort Hood, and also a Shabbat Box with baked goods, personal care items, challah and grape juice.
“We send for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Purim and Pesach and Shabbat too,” said Keith Freedman, Jewish Soldiers Project founder. “My uncle and father both served our country and, for me, this is paying back my ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ who serve for me — for all of us — now.”
While the soldiers at Fort Hood are recipients of support, earlier this month they sent prayer books for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, tallises, tefillin, kippot and candles to Berger and her battalion.
“I love that she’s so embraced her Judaism and is serving her community. As small as it may be, it’s important to bring them together and I’m really so happy that doing that is important to her,” said Laura Felson, Diamond’s mother.
“Yael recognizes that being a Jew in this special point and time and space is unusual in our 3,000-plus-year history and she serves with her heart,” said David Diamond, her father. “We need to participate in all aspects of democracy. It’s important for Jews to be active in all aspects and Yael believes she can’t leave the defense of our country, or the organizing of a Jewish community on base, to others.”
The fall holidays will go on, with Diamond, the Felzenbergs and the Wankmuellers, Paulson and others certain to share meaningful memories.
“Rosh Hashanah came in under the budget’s wire, and I’ve already placed our catering order,” said Diamond, who has faith the holidays will go on and will be meaningful and memorable. “Yom Kippur will be whatever it will, but we’re already planning to build our sukkah and we hope to also have a portable one to go around base.”
For Michael Hart, deputy garrison chaplain for operations at Fort Hood, watching one as young as Diamond hold on so firmly to her faith and tradition is meaningful.
“We appreciate 1st Lt. Diamond taking on the mantle of leadership and the spirit in which she supports her community,” he said. “The military doctrine recognizes spiritual resilience, and she is helping to ensure that the Jewish soldiers at Fort Hood are mission ready because they are spiritually ready.”
“Wherever there are Jews, few or many — there will be community,” said Diamond.
To provide a donation to the Fort Hood Jewish community, visit tinyurl.com/FORT-HOOD-Jewish-Comm-Support, choose “installation,” Fort Hood, TX and “category” JJJC.