CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait - First Lt. David Frommer lit candles as he led a small group of service members and civilians in the chanting of the Torah. A chaplain of four years, Frommer has conducted several celebrations of the biblical holiday Sukkot (Feast of Booths, Feast of Tabernacles), but this was his first in the Middle East.
The U.S. Army's first cantor (someone who leads the congregation in prayer along with the rabbi), Frommer, a Third Army/ARCENT chaplain, explained that despite prior enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces and U.S. Army, his toughest battle may have been getting on a deployment.
"With the reduction of troop levels in Afghanistan and the closure of combat operations in Iraq, units for the military were shrinking in the mission," Frommer said. "The state of New York really got behind me so I owe them a big ‘thank you' for even getting out here."
Frommer, who is a member of the New York National Guard's 27th Brigade Combat Team, said the push to serve overseas has lead to "a once in a lifetime opportunity."
"As a National Guardsman, having the opportunity to work in a three-star general's command has been an eye-opening experience. We don't have three-star generals in the entire National Guard," Frommer said. Additionally, Chaplain Frommer felt that this has been a chance to minister to service members overseas, "getting to see how they live, what their challenges are and how a chaplain can best help them."
When Frommer is not directing services, the Yale University graduate with Third Army/ARCENT's assistance has been able to administer religious support to Soldiers throughout Kuwait and Afghanistan, as well as have service members transported to Camp Arifjan for spiritual guidance.
"The whole chaplain team here in Third Army seems to be on one sheet of music with one mission in mind, to provide that support the best they can," Frommer said.
Frommer grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in what he called "a bubble of privilege." In an experience that admittedly "broke that bubble," Frommer, in 2004, moved to Israel for three years, where he joined the Israel Defense Forces.
"I felt like as a Jewish-American it was wrong to stand by and let the Israelis fight their own battle," Frommer said. "In the synagogue, we say that we are one people with them."
After a 15-month stint as an infantryman participating in security operations in the West Bank, Frommer arrived back in the United States to join the seminary. After several months of study, a fellow student introduced him to an opportunity that would strengthen his symbiotic bond with religion and the armed forces.
"At my seminary there was a student a few years ahead of me that was doing Air Force chaplaincy, and it opened my eyes to the idea of chaplaincy," said Frommer.
So as Frommer had done four years earlier in Israel, he enlisted in the military; however, this time, as a chaplain in the U.S. Army.
"I felt like I had no compelling reason to stand by while other Americans went and served, and in some cases died, for a country that I felt privileged to live in," he said.
Under the guidance of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, he enlisted in a program that allows seminary students to join the military. Although the balance between his studies and drill became difficult, he said the cadre at U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School were an overwhelming source of motivation.
"The chaplains and the cadre that worked at the school house were extremely influential," Frommer said. "Most of them were active-duty. Most of them had done multiple tours. They were extremely inspirational in their stories and knowledge."
With his completion of the program he not only became an official military chaplain but made history as the first cantor in the U.S. Army, an honor Frommer said means "more than words can describe." Frommer, who currently resides in San Francisco, has used this very unique skill to enlighten those of the Jewish faith not only in the U.S. but on deployment.
"He has been a wonderful chaplain both in terms of leading religious services and outside of services," said Navy Cmdr. Alexander Levy, Transportation Branch chief of U.S. Central Command Deployment Distribution Operations Center. "Not only does he have a wonderful voice, he also has a good heart."
As Frommer's deployment is scheduled to end in the next few months, he reflected over the time by highlighting the importance of faith.
"Faith can be an incredible source of strength for all soldiers; a source of comfort; a source of peace, and a source of optimism during a deployment," said Frommer. "After spending this time, I have realized that the biggest threat toward our soldiers has nothing to do with the enemy – we know how to fight the enemy; we're trained to do that – the biggest threat has to do with our own minds. When we start to feel depressed, when we start to feel like our mission has no value or our place here is not appreciated, faith in those moments has an incredible ability to provide us with a different perspective."