Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County's new rabbi comes from the U.S. Navy.
Rabbi Jon Cutler has served all over the world, but, as he is quick to say, his roots remain in Philadelphia — and have finally pulled him back to the Delaware Valley.
Cutler started at Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County on Sept. 1. Up until he officially began his new rabbinical duties, he served as the Force Chaplain for Naval Sea Systems Command and as Deputy Force Chaplain, Commander Navy Installations Command in Washington, D.C.
Cutler, a Mount Airy native, is a Philadelphian through and through. He graduated from Temple University with a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in religious studies and a Master of Hebrew Letters, and received ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He also earned a Doctor of Ministry (Counseling) from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
In addition to his stint with the Navy, he has also been the rabbi at Congregation Beth Tikva in Flemington, N.J., and Congregation Tiferes B’nai Israel in Warrington; he also started Darkaynu, the community group with members from Northeast Philadelphia, Bensalem, New Hope, Roxborough, Manayunk, Norristown and northern Chester County that focuses on expanding oneself through learning and prayer.
Beth Israel is a Conservative congregation, which parallels Cutler’s upbringing. Cutler grew up attending West Oak Lane Jewish Community Center.
Cutler, a captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve who has served for 25 years, originally joined to serve his country and see the world. A friend of his told him about work as a Navy chaplain. The Jewish population in that branch of the military is underserved, he said, and he wanted to be able to meet their religious needs.
“You can make an impact on individual lives and community lives,” said Cutler. “My goal is to see that Judaism continues and becomes enriched.”
In the Navy, he did strategic planning, overseeing the whole enterprise. He made sure the religious programs were set and that chaplain services were available for all.
Since entering the chaplaincy in 1985, Cutler has been all over the world: the Philippines, Iraq, Japan, Africa, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, during Operation Desert Storm.
Although there is a very small, diverse group of Jews in the Navy, Cutler said it parallels Jewish populations in congregations. A synagogue may be labeled as Conservative, but congregants come from all different Jewish backgrounds — like military leaders — and may interpret the religion differently.
Cutler tries to balance and integrate both of those worlds.
“It’s not an either-or; it’s both,” he explained.
When Cutler was in Iraq for 13 months, he was the only full-time command chaplain for the Marines and Navy. During his time, he set up synagogues at five different military bases, attempting to create a sense of community for Jews in the military, who often feel secluded.
“You’re dealing with people who are very isolated, people who feel very alienated, and to be in a community where people can support each other, especially Jews, that is really important in their situations,” he said.
While he’s just getting started at Beth Israel, Cutler is already actively involved with the LGBT community in Philadelphia. He’s worked with organizations such as Outserve-SLDN, a military organization that helps veterans involved with the now-defunct Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy; The Attic Youth Center, a LGBT group for youth; and Mazzoni Clinic, a LGBT health organization.
His involvement in LGBT issues is motivated by more than tikkun olam; as a gay man in the military, he had to keep his own sexuality a secret for decades or risk being dishonorably discharged.
Now, in the wake of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Cutler is free to do things like be the featured speaker at this year’s LGBT Pride month festivities at the Washington Navy Yard this summer.
“I feel honest about it now. I don’t have to live in fear,” he said. “To me, it’s a miracle. I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime.”
Cutler, who discussed his vulnerability in the military during Rosh Hashanah sermon at Beth Israel, enjoys being an integral part of people’s lives, whether handling pastoral care, leading services, preaching or teaching.
Said the rabbi: “The idea that Judaism adds a lot of value to the world and that synagogues are major institutions contributing to those values — that’s why to be a leader of a synagogue is to really instill the future of Judaism.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 215-832-0737.