July 19, 2024
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July 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In Memory of Rabbi Col. David Lapp, z”l

When I think of Dad—and I called him that, not just out of respect, but also because for almost 39 years he treated me as a son without an iota of difference from the way he treated Aaron and Eli—I think of several words that encapsulate and define in an overarching manner dad‘s life. The three words that come to mind are: ויהי בנסוע הארון

Dad literally took the Aron Kodesh of Yiddishkeit and moved with it to places far and wide over the course of a stellar, greater-than-60-year career, devoted to the Jewish people. Sixty-plus years because, from the time he received semicha until he was about 80–85 years old he just didn’t stop.

He really didn’t know how to do it any other way. He couldn’t fathom spending time not working, not giving of himself, not teaching Torah, not being of service to the other, not continuing the mission of להגדיל תורה – raising the banner of Torah and Judaism far and wide, and of course, not being a chazan. Vacations and retirement work for the others.

As a young boy he sang every Shabbos in a choir at a shul in Vienna. He sang with all the great chazanim of yesteryear, in particular, at the Beis Medrash Hagadol on the Lower East Side. Having davened there many times with my father while I was growing up, I could imagine his voice echoing off the ceilings and arches of that once great and beautiful shul.

Perhaps a little over a year ago he and mom were over at the house for Shabbos dinner and I was chatting with him in the family room. He asked me, as usual, how things were at the office, given the state of the pandemic. I said OK, and then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Boruch Moishe, don’t ever retire. If it wasn’t for my back I never would have.”

He never spoke truer words.

He entered the American military as a chaplain as a way to partially pay back a debt—a hakarat hatov to the United States—for providing refuge for him and his parents, who with hashgacha pratis were able to escape from Vienna through Trieste in March 1940 just in time and find refuge in our country.

יהי בנסוע הארון

He took his Aron Kodesh to the godforsaken fields and shores of Vietnam as head chaplain of the famous 1st Armored Division. He would issue commands that military choppers fly him, often under live fire, to drop-sites at battlegrounds where he would run or crawl to minister to even a single injured or fallen American GI, keeping his promise to never leave them alone. I can see in my mind’s eye a picture on one of his walls, one of the hundreds that he has of his time in the military. There he is standing on some Vietnamese shore, possibly the Cam Ranh Bay, with his tallis, holding a siddur. In the background in the water is a navy warship. His Jeep is behind him with an Aron Kodesh positioned at the center of the trunk. In front of him are four or five GIs with yarmulkes listening to him daven or passing on a Torah thought.

He attended the U.S. Army War College where senior level military officers receive degrees in strategic studies. Attendance at this college is required for combatants and, as chaplains are not considered combatants, Dad was not required to apply for or attend this college. But Dad felt that it was important to receive this military instruction and demonstrate proficiency in these studies. The year he was there a classmate of his was General Norman Schwarzkopf. He was the only chaplain. Dad told me that his final exam in the class consisted of designing a strategic combat deployment in response to a fictitious enemy assault. Dad laughed as he told me he lifted a page from King David’s battles and received honors.

He took his Aron Kodesh to bases in Germany, to army bases across the width and breadth of the United States. He sent it to the Persian Gulf, and when he was about 65 he took it with him to Bosnia. In all those places, whether on active duty or in his capacity as executive director of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council, he provided spiritual support, Torah, tefillah and Yiddishkeit for Jewish military personnel in the armed forces, and when necessary, spiritual support for non-Jews—as is a chaplain’s obligation.

He personified the attribute of receiving and greeting everyone with a cheerful face.

His mantra was “kill ’em with love.” Whenever you would meet someone who had met, worked with or knew him, the very first thing you would hear them say was, “What a nice sweet man, what a cheerful happy man, what a warm, wonderful guy.”

In addition to the ever-cheerful countenance that he displayed in all the interactions with neighbors, friends, colleagues, professional peers and anyone and all in the military—he always conducted himself with ישרות—ethos, with menschlichkeit and ehrlichkeit—with courtesy, with honor and respect to each and every person regardless of race, religion or station.

But in addition to all this, there was something very important that he carried with him in his Aron Kodesh—wherever he traveled—and that is that he was an ‏אור לגויים—he was literally a light unto the nations.

Dad rose through the ranks of the U.S. military, receiving each promotion in succession, ultimately attaining the rank of full colonel, a level immediately beneath the rank of general. This rank has been accorded to possibly only three or four other Jewish chaplains in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces. He received this rank and its attendant honor for a good reason.

Professional competence aside, Dad’s honor and respect for the other—his morality and conduct—were such that non-Jewish generals and commanders, and non-Jews in general, were compelled to say, “This man is an exemplar of the Jewish people at its best.”

Dad‘s demeanor personified the definition of ‏קידוש השם in the public arena.

And everyone knew that.

When I met my wife about 39 years ago, Dad had already begun the second phase of his career, no longer on active duty, but now overseeing the U.S. chaplaincy as the executive director of the Jewish Welfare Boards Jewish Chaplains Council.

In this capacity he took his Aron Kodesh and would regularly travel to every base, domestically and internationally, meeting with base commanders, Jewish chaplains and Jewish military personnel to be certain that all their spiritual needs and support requirements were being met. He would make certain that chaplains had what was necessary to provide for Jewish troops for Shabbosim, Yomim Tovim and lifecycle events, Torah learning and other forms of spiritual support.

Additionally, when issues arose, he interceded on behalf of chaplains and Jewish military personnel with base commanders and, if necessary, with generals in Washington, D.C., always looking for a reasonable compromise and solution.

He was especially proud of the fact that the JWB’s Chaplaincy Council represented something unique, in that it was the only national organization where representatives of all three rabbinical schools, RIETS, JTS and HUC, sat under one roof, aligned in their singular mission to oversee and provide for the Jewish chaplaincy. He was instrumental in drafting and ultimately publishing the first siddur to be used by U.S. Jewish chaplains and Jewish military personnel, and he introduced the camo yarmulke.

When he chose to leave this position at about age 75 he entered his third career. He signed on and brought his Aron Kodesh as a volunteer chaplain to roughly 11 nursing homes or skilled nursing facilities in the Bergen Passaic County area.

He would make rounds throughout the week and of course every Erev Shabbos and Yom Tov to each of these homes. The aides would wheel all the Jewish residents to a social hall and occasionally even bring in a non-Jewish person or two.

Dad prepared a thought on the Torah portion of the week or the upcoming holiday and would even sing a song for them. He once told me that while he was singing—either “Sholom Aleichem” or “Dayenu”—he saw a woman who was otherwise unresponsive due to advanced dementia tapping her fingers to his beat, and an African American woman nodding her head to his rhythm. Dad was able to touch the deepest and innermost neshamas of so many people.

Dad had a tremendous degree of ‏אמונה—his ‏אמונה פשוטה would sometimes leave those of us who do have a question or two unsettled.

But not only was he a ‏מאמין, he was also an ‏ ‏עבד נאמןwho was ‏עוסק בצורכי ציבור באמונה on a grand scale, faithfully serving Hashem and successfully and most joyously conducting his תפקיד, his mission in life with utmost dedication—to bring Torah and Yiddishkeit to other Jews near and far and to be a representative par excellence of Torah and Judaism to the world at large.

His Aron Kodesh has come full circle. His Aron Kodesh has returned home. ‏הקדוש ברוך הוא will pay his reward.

His mold was unique and will not easily be replaced. His passing leaves a great sadness and void in our family, the Shomrei Torah community he loved dearly for over 40 years, and equally so in the broader Jewish community.

May the memory of HaRav Dovid Moshe Michel ben Pesach Zvi be for a blessing.

Dr. Brad Herman was the son-in-law of Rabbi Col. David Lapp, z”l.

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