Teacher in uniform fosters faith, morale

Teacher in uniform fosters faith, morale

Rodeph Torah upbringing helped shaped chaplain’s values, commitment

Battalion chaplain Capt. Heather Borshof speaks at a Shabbat service at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, on March 14. 
Battalion chaplain Capt. Heather Borshof speaks at a Shabbat service at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, on March 14. 

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Capt. Heather Borshof — who serves as battalion chaplain of the 330th Joint Movement Control Battalion, 1st Sustainment Command (Theater) — is one of the inspirational women service members in uniform.

The U.S. Army’s first-ever female Jewish chaplain on full active duty, Borshof uses her rabbinical expertise and talents as an empathetic listener to help others build meaningful relationships.

From a young age, Rabbi Borshof’s faith and studies in Judaism have been integral in shaping her not only as a person, but as someone others can depend on.

Borshof grew up in Manalapan and became bat mitzva at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, where her father, Joel, is a past president, and her mother, Marcia, teaches in the religious school.

“I was very fortunate growing up in New Jersey,” said Borshof. “I had a religious school upbringing and I also grew up with a lot of Jewish people around me, so it wasn’t something that was foreign to my friends, not even my non-Jewish friends.

“I got more involved with my faith when I was in high school,” she said. As a teen, she was involved with Jewish youth groups and when the synagogue’s clergy were away, she helped lead services. 

Rabbi Donald Weber, Rodeph Torah’s religious leader and Borshof’s lifelong mentor and teacher, saw something special in her. “She was the first student of her high school to ask to join the adult education program at our temple,” he said. “She was so amazing to have in class. She would question everything. People would come up to me and say, ‘Don’t you get tired of all these questions?’ I would say, ‘No I don’t; I wish everyone would ask me this many questions.’”

It might have seemed then that Borshof was already well on her way to becoming a rabbi, yet the road to a true calling isn’t always straight.

“When I went to college I studied Jewish studies and liberal arts, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” said Borshof. “People would say to me when I was growing up, ‘Oh you’re going to be a rabbi.’ When I got out of college, I just needed to take a step away from it to see whether or not this was something I wanted to do and not just what I’d been hearing my whole life.

“I took a job as a waitress and also worked as a concierge at a hotel, just something totally removed from studying to be a rabbi,” she said. “I decided after a couple of years that this was something I did want to do, because it wasn’t just a job, but a way of life.”

Borshof received her rabbinic ordination in 2010 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. It was her time in Israel that led to her becoming a chaplain. “I saw how the military plays a huge role in Israel’s culture,” she said. “It made me really appreciate what our military does for our country.”

Becoming a military chaplain afforded Borshof the opportunity to involve herself with people of different backgrounds and personalities.

“I feel really fortunate and I love what I do,” she said. “I have so many different parts to what I do…. It’s not your typical congregation, where you mostly work with people of your same faith. I get to work with everyone. I believe very strongly in not pushing one’s faith or any faith onto somebody. When people come to me and ask questions, I will try to answer them or give them something from my perspective. I might say, ‘Hey, this is how I see things, and you don’t necessarily have to see things this way.’”

Borshof is currently deployed in Afghanistan with the 330th in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“Most soldiers who have been in the service for a couple of years have deployed by now,” said Borshof, and her deployment gives her “a chance to connect with them and a better understanding of what they’ve gone through.”

“A friend of mine who has deployed multiple times said something to me that I’ve remembered every day: ‘Don’t wish your deployment away. Take what you can from it, learn from it, and enjoy each day as you can.’ I’ve tried to do that with all my experiences here,” Borshof said. 

Borshof’s keen perspective allows her to connect with those around her. “She’s a great communicator,” said Maj. Gordon Vincent, the battalion executive officer of the 330th. “She does a very good job of connecting with our soldiers and a tremendous job as far as reaching out to all of them, whether they’re in need or not. She also has an understanding quality and never comes across as judgmental.” 

As a chaplain, Borshorf said she wants not only to tend to spiritual needs but also to strengthen morale. 

“Most of the time, when soldiers come to the chaplain, it doesn’t really have anything to do with religion or spirituality,” she said. “They’re coming because they have an issue that’s bothering them and need someone to talk to. They want somebody they can trust, someone who will keep their confidence and be as neutral and unbiased as possible.” Often, she said, “they’re having issues with someone they’re working with…. I try to help them see that we have lots of different choices and places where we can go, and as we make these choices, we take a look at how we treat others.”

Whether it’s serving stateside or overseas in a harsh environment, Borshof displays an unwavering desire to counsel where she is needed most. 

That quality resonates with her childhood rabbi. “When I first started as a student,” said Weber, “I was approached about working as a chaplain in a cancer hospital. My gut thought was that I can’t do that kind of work. The person who approached me said, ‘Are you becoming a rabbi to serve where it’s pretty or to serve where people need you?’ I think of Heather all the time when I think of that, because where she’s serving, from what I can tell, isn’t very pretty. She’s serving where people need her. I think it’s very special, even within the ranks of rabbi.”

Borshof said she frequently relies on her faith to guide her. “Judaism is a faith of morals and values that looks at how we are to treat other people,” she said. There’s a concept called ‘tikun olam,’ which means ‘repairing the world.’ 

“I believe that we are all here for that job and to help and look out for others.”

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