Rabbi Heather Borshof didn’t know she would be making history when she decided to combine her love of Judaism with love of country.
Borshof, who was recently ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, grew up in Manalapan and became bat mitzva at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro.
In the coming months, she will be commissioned as the U.S. Army’s first-ever female Jewish chaplain on full active duty, according to retired Rear Admiral Harold Robinson, director of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council.
“It’s very exciting,” said Robinson, who said he will personally swear Borshof in during her commissioning ceremony. “The Orthodox movement has been very forthcoming in providing chaplains, and it is nice to see the Reform and Conservative movements are now also providing them because we desperately need them. In fact, Heather will be our first Reform rabbi to come on active duty in six years.”
There are approximately 10,000 Jews in the U.S. military.
Borshof, who lives in Brooklyn, will be in basic training for three months at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and then stationed at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
Explaining the reason she joined up, Borshof said, “I became fascinated with the military and throughout rabbinical school I was with the Air Force Reserves. I had a wonderful experience and terrific mentors. The way I see it we are able to live in freedom because these people put their lives on the line every day. It’s an honor to work with them.”
The 34-year-old rabbi, who spent time in Israel and worked at a variety of jobs before deciding to go to rabbinical school, described the military as “much like a regular job, but the difference is you have deployments.”
She credits her decision to become a rabbi to the positive Jewish experiences she had at Rodeph Torah.
Her father, Joel, is a past president of the synagogue, and her mother, Marcia, teaches in its religious school.
Borshof said she remembers being so disappointed in her performance at her bar mitzva service that, before her 14th birthday, she wrote a letter to the temple board asking permission to lead a Shabbat service while the rabbi was on vacation.
“I learned another Torah portion, wrote another sermon, and learned the remaining prayers, but without a tutor this time,” she recalled. “I was able to do that because I was taught so well how to study and how to learn. As I prepared for what I thought of as my ‘redeeming service,’ I also realized how much I was learning and how much I enjoyed it.”
Rodeph Torah’s Rabbi Donald Weber said he recalls Borshof as an eager student who was confirmed in the 12th grade and “took most of our adult education classes as well.”
“We’re very proud of her and very proud she’s chosen to be a military chaplain,” he said.
Borshof holds a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies and philosophy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and spent a semester studying in London and another in Israel. She earned a master’s degree in Jewish education from Baltimore Hebrew University.
After college she spent about 18 months in Israel, devoting three months to an Israeli army program. She also worked as a counselor for American students attending a high school program.
Borshof then spent several years teaching in Manhattan synagogues and tutoring — and did some waitressing as well.
Military chaplains are assigned to bases or units and serve all soldiers there of different faiths. So while she will continue to conduct Shabbat services, the rabbi will also have opportunities to engage non-Jews with little exposure to Judaism.
“I really feel blessed to be able to share Jewish culture and religion,” said Borshof.
And while her parents are a little nervous, they are supportive and proud.
“Even I’m a little bit nervous about maybe going to Afghanistan,” admitted Borshof. “It’s definitely on my mind but now I’m just getting ready for basic training.”