Rabbi Bonnie Koppell made history by being the first female rabbi to serve in the military.
Now, she has been inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame, along with 17 other women, in a ceremony on Capitol Hill that took place on the eve of International Women’s Day, March 7.
Koppell began her military career by joining the Army Reserves in 1978. After graduating from Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1981, she attended the U.S. Army Chaplain School. Since then, Koppell, who is associate rabbi of Temple Chai, has ministered to soldiers, their families and civilians in her role as a reservist Army chaplain.
“The chaplain is often the first line of defense for soldiers who are having stresses in their lives,” Koppell said. “The chaplain is that safe refuge where people can come and gain both support and perspective without having to be concerned that it would be reflected in their career in the military.”
Her varied experiences as one of the few rabbis in the U.S. military have made for a memorable career. She remembers one morning exercise when she had to bless a convoy of trucks prior to their deployment. She went from truck to truck to offer encouragement and blessings, “and as I climbed up to one of these cabs to talk to the driver, one of them turns out to be a Jewish guy who said that he had been in the Army for 22 years and he had never seen a Jewish chaplain.”
Koppell knew she wanted to be a rabbi ever since she was 11, but the Brooklyn native wasn’t sure where she would be needed. She was always aware of chaplaincy as an option, though, as she grew up right by Fort Hamilton, where the United States Army Chaplain and Chaplain Assistant School once was.
“I drove by that school frequently and I always remember always being a little bit curious of what went on there,” Koppell said.
When she was in her second year of rabbinical school, she saw a military recruiting poster for chaplains and decided to try it out. While she enjoyed her time in the chaplain candidate program, she didn’t necessarily think she would end up being an active duty chaplain. But her then-husband encouraged her to continue with it after he learned that she was the first female rabbi to be an Army chaplain.
“His argument for me to stay on was that if I left it would look bad for all female rabbis,” Koppell said. “It would’ve looked like I couldn’t cut it, and he said that I had to set a good example.”
Setting a good example turned into nearly 40 years as an Army chaplain, including service during Operation Desert Storm, when she was stationed at the Academy of Health Sciences at Fort Sam Houston, near San Antonio, Texas. There, she was the only rabbi on staff, tasked with attending to the spiritual needs of the sick and wounded.
After being released from active duty, she served in the 164th Corps Support Group in Mesa, Arizona, did a yearlong tour at Fort Huachuca in Arizona and served as staff chaplain for the 37th TRANSCOM and the Fifth Army.
In 2005, Operation Iraqi Freedom took her Iraq, where she celebrated Passover with Jewish troops in 2005 and 2006. She spent Chanukah with Jewish service members in Kuwait and Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006, and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. In 2010, she celebrated Passover in Kuwait.
Koppell received many awards for her service, including three Meritorious Service medals, two Army Achievement medals and the Global War on Terrorism medal for her service in Iraq in 2005.
She’s received civilian honors, too: She made The Forward’s list of America’s most influential women rabbis and was named Mesa “Woman of the Year,” among other tributes.
Although Koppell, who ended her military service in 2016, was unable to attend the ceremony on Capitol Hill, she was very humbled and honored to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“To have a sense of being recognized for what I did was very touching and meaningful,” Koppell said. “To travel to different combat zones and provide Jewish spiritual support to service members is among the most meaningful aspects of my career.” JN