Retired Lt. Col. Kathy Brill has interrogated an Afghan warlord and experienced firsthand one of the most violent periods of the U.S. war in Iraq.
But as the Overbrook Park resident — who is barely five feet tall — tells it, she was nervous, if not outright terrified, to step into a synagogue.
After decades away from congregational life and after serving in two wars, she felt a need to fill a spiritual void.
She worried, though, whether she would remember any of the prayers, and wonderered if she’d be ignored, or worse, pressured to join right away. Several times, she stood outside different synagogues and ended up turning around and going home.
Eventually, in January of this year, she found the courage to enter Shabbat morning services at Congregation Kesher Israel, a small, traditional, egalitarian synagogue in Society Hill. She fit right in. “I feel like I have a warm family and community that supports me and embraces who I am,” said Brill, who asked that her age not be printed. “The portions, every week, they give you meaning on how to lead your life and interpret your life. They help you accept things and find a way to move on after tragedies.”
Within a month, she had committed to preparing for the Bat Mitzvah she never had as a girl growing up in Champaign, Ill.
On Oct. 13 — the date of her deceased parents’ wedding anniversary — Brill read from the first Torah portion of Genesis and the Haftorah reading from the book of Isaiah.
She wore her military-issued camouflage tallit and kipah, which she obtained for her Bat Mitzvah, as well as a tallit from Israel.
Rabbi Fred Kazan called it “one of the greatest Bat Mitzvahs of my life. It was awesome. I never experienced the depths of emotion that she presented to us.”
Brill said that while reading from the Torah, she felt a powerful connection to her parents, who were both raised Orthodox. Her father, Isadore, was a physician who served in North Africa during World War II. He died when she was just 6 years old.
She said she had always been determined to serve in the military as well.
When Brill attended college in the 1970s, women weren’t allowed in the regular ROTC. But she eventually joined the program in the 1980s as a 30-something grad student in education at Temple University, getting waivers for the age and weight requirements (she was too old and too light).
After her studies, Brill embarked on a career in recreational therapy and has been on staff at the Philadelphia V.A. Medical Center since 1990. Concurrent with her professional career, she served in the U.S. National Guard and in the U.S. Army Reserves for 27 years. She retired from the military in 2009.
In 1997, she was deployed to Bosnia. In 2003-2004, she was sent to Afghanistan as a tactical intelligence officer. In one 2003 incident that was reported in the media, she interrogated an Afghan warlord after an American base was struck by a rocket fired from a nearby village. They didn’t find out much, she said, but they scared him.
She was in Iraq from 2006-2007, a time of near civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites that was followed by the American troop surge. During that time, she ran the National Iraqi Assistance Center, a group that provided humanitarian aid to Iraqis.
While interacting with Afghans and Iraqis, she said, she never mentioned her religious identity. She had the word “Jewish” removed from her dog tags, out of fear of what would happen to her if she were captured.
But that doesn’t mean her religion and heritage, a strong part of her upbringing, were ever absent from her thoughts.
“I drew on a lot of my Jewish heritage and values as I helped people,” she said. “When I would encounter death in the field, either deceased soliders or Iraqis, I would say the Kaddish because I was at a loss for words and didn’t know what else to do.”
One incident from her tour in Iraq continues to trouble her.
Brill was tasked with finding a hospital that could perform a life-saving heart operation on a young Iraqi boy. He had a hole in his heart from a birth defect. Several Arab nations offered to perform the operation for a steep price. Israel, she said, would take him immediately and do it for free.
The boy’s mother wanted to save his life but feared she would be killed if it was discovered that they’d been in the Jewish state. Brill reassured the mother that it would all be kept secret.
The boy was saved, but Brill later learned that the truth was discovered and his mother was murdered. “To this day, it haunts me,” she said as her eyes teared and her voice grew momentarily weak. “Sometimes you make decisions that cost lives and sometimes you make decisions that save lives, and it is just constant in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can’t believe that a person would murder a mother for saving her child.”
But she has no regrets about serving in those war zones. “I try to remain optimistic. I see that we did make a difference. I think we did help people,” she said. “A lot of people do want change, especially the women, the mothers. I think we show them that there can be change and there is something different out there.”