By Deb Silverthorn
L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, Rabbi Capt. Karyn Berger follows in the army boots of her father, Rabbi Murray Berger, a retired U.S. Army chaplain. She returned recently to Fort Hood, near Killeen, from a nine-month deployment to Poland; the active chaplain is honored to serve.
Born at Fort Sill in Oklahoma while her father was stationed there, Berger is the daughter of Rabbi Berger and Bobbie, of blessed memory, and the older sister of Allan (Katie) and Heidi (David) Geller. The family moved to Dallas in 1977, when its patriarch became associate rabbi at Temple Shalom. Berger celebrated her bat mitzvah with her father at the bimah and is a graduate of Richardson High School. She was a member of BBYO’s Reba Wadel chapter, NCSY, NFTY and USY.
Berger earned a bachelor’s degree at The University of Texas at Austin, in English and communications, before commissioning into the U.S. Army Reserves. After working in the public sector, she earned graduate degrees from Emory University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In 2006 she was ordained by Aleph Renewal, which, through a transdenominational approach, combines the socially progressive values of egalitarianism, the joy of Hasidism, the informed do-it-yourself spirit of the havurah movement and accumulated wisdom of centuries of tradition.
“I spent my childhood looking for my niche in the Jewish community. Renewal is Judaism with heart, creating community and moving forward connecting Jews to one another and to God,” said Berger.
In 2010, she founded Righteousness International, which developed a curriculum nurturing and empowering people to take action. Her primary focus was a program to transform Holocaust education.
“We can’t change the past, only the future, and I want to teach that so much of the Holocaust was of the choices people made or had made for them. Most decisions don’t have that impact — but could — and caring about the choices we make as a society is what it is to be a human being,” said Berger.
In 2012, Berger’s mother was prompting her to join the army, which was in need of rabbis. “She was right, as she’d been before and she’d be again, and it was and has been good for me. I got to Fort Hood at the height of the Iraq War. President Obama was in office and my Mom said, and I believed, it was my calling to serve the Jewish people,” said Berger.
Berger underwent the endorsement process, ultimately through Hebrew Union College, and was approved by the Jewish Welfare Bureau.
Rabbi Irving A. Elson, director of the JWB’s Jewish Chaplains Council, reports there are only 37 Jewish chaplains currently serving the 10,000 Jewish service men and women and their 15,000 family members. The JWB endorses Jewish chaplains — all ordained rabbis — and is the only entity to endorse female chaplains to the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, augmenting their resources and advocating on matters of policy.
“There is a shortage of rabbis in the United States overall. If we had two or three times as many, we could still use more; there just aren’t enough,” Elson said. “Rabbi Berger is a stalwart of the military. She’s seen a lot and done a lot and taken great care of the Jews wherever she’s served. Rabbi Berger is high speed, low-drag and she does her job well. We are lucky to have her.”
In 2018, Berger married Karen “KJ” Humphrey, a radiation and safety officer. The two, introduced by a rabbi, enjoyed having Rabbi Berger — the elder — under the chuppah to co-officiate their marriage.
Early on in her service, Berger was deployed to Afghanistan, where she led High Holy Day services for her Jewish soldiers and also led memorial services after six airmen and five civilians were killed in a plane crash.
Last fall, during her deployment in Poland, she coordinated services for soldiers 12 hours away from one another. Serving soldiers wherever they are, Berger trained soldiers and made sure all provisions, including a Torah and prayer books, were made available. Before she left in January, she arranged everything necessary for the Passover holiday, Seder and all, as the incoming chaplain would not have had the time.
“My wife and I couldn’t be prouder of Karyn, or of any of our children,” said Murray Berger, who volunteered for the draft. He was ordained in May 1963, married the next day and shortly thereafter was assigned to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York. He ultimately served more than 34 years in active duty and in the reserves.
“It was different when I went in,” he said. “There were more Jews serving then, lots of professionals, and we might have 100 or 200 or more people for Shabbat services. I had a cousin who was a rabbi and also my great-grandfather was a rabbi in Poland just hours from where Karyn was deployed. What Karyn does is of great service to our country and her effect on those around her is certain.”
Berger, who, in addition to her two seasons at Fort Hood has been based at Fort Benning, Georgia, and at U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden, Germany, says hers is a heavy load but she is grateful for it.
“I minister to whatever the needs of the day,” she said. “I help those who are troubled because in addition to our physical and mental health, spiritual health really is a thing. That element of our lives — whatever your religious affiliation or lack thereof — must be cared for in order for anyone to be fit to fight. It’s what we as chaplains do. We serve as our soldiers, only without weapons. Our Jewish soldiers are often spread far apart and that means going to extraordinary lengths to serve them,” she said.