By Carin Smilk
Talking to Rabbi Yonina Creditor is an exercise in efficiency. She tells it like it is in a way that’s both straightforward and positive, speaking with such candor, wisdom and joy of duty that she almost seems as if she’s the one interviewing you.
Creditor is the new rabbi assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland — she is a rabbi assigned to the Naval Academy itself and a battalion chaplain — a position she started on Sept. 21 and will hold for the next three years. A lieutenant commander, she is one of nine chaplains assigned to the Naval Academy and one of eight rabbis on active duty in the Navy.
As for the new job … so far, so good. “It’s going OK,” she says congenially.
That, of course, seems an understatement. Creditor is charged with a significant portfolio as a main communication link for everything Jewish among midshipmen and service members assigned to the academy. She’s not just a Jewish leader but a leader, period, noting that “I advocate so that everyone has the ability to practice religion authentically.”
And while she makes it a point to say that “my job encompasses everything” — that it has a wide umbrella — she does specify four tenets of service: to provide, facilitate, care and advise.
Working in the Miller Chapel housed in the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center, she provides religious services for her own faith group, Judaism, even though she is there to assist and advocate for other faith communities at the Academy. And she does so in ways big and small.
For example, she advises like any rabbi would. That entails assistance in matters of family, finances, mental health, physical health and, for Jewish personnel, access to services, classes and lectures, religious items like kippahs and prayer books, and access to kosher food, or ordering MREs, or Meals-Ready-to-Eat, which can be obtained for regular consumption and/or for holidays with special eating restrictions, like Passover. She notes that she does work with both the Jewish Welfare Board-Jewish Chaplain’s Council, her endorser, as well as the Aleph Institute in Surfside, Florida, for Jewish military matters.
Since she arrived, she has held Friday night services in the Miller Chapel that have drawn anywhere from 25 to 200 attendees. Shabbat, she notes, is their “day of liberty.”
As Creditor describes it, working with members of the military seems like a congregation of sorts — one that grapples with issues like any civilian group. “Everyone is going through a transition right now; this place isn’t any different,” she says.
That means young midshipmen are still adjusting to post-pandemic life, similar to situations those away at college might face. Creditor is there to offer counseling on every subject under the sun — from how to best handle funds and investing (she jokes that her last name can raise eyebrows in that category; as for her first, it can be a real conversation starter, and she makes it easier for some by breaking it down to: “Yo! Nina”) to getting along with one’s officers to issues with family and other relationships to celebrating holidays in ways that feel comfortable. She emphasizes that conversations are 100% confidential by law.
On the flip side, she frequently has to educate service members on Jewish topics, explaining, for example, what Shavuot is, how it is observed and the fact that “it really is a big deal.” Those conversations, including advising the command, can be formal or casual, depending on the circumstance and the person involved.
‘A REFLECTION OF SOCIETY’
Creditor, the daughter of a rabbi, grew up “Conservadox” in the Mid-Atlantic, the one only (save for a cousin, she says) with a career in the military. She says, “I knew I was going to be a rabbi when I was 7,” even though, she adds, “you don’t tell people that at 7.” She has a brother, also a rabbi, and a sister who lives in Israel.
She went to Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County on Long Island, New York, and graduated from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. In her third year of rabbinic school, she studied in Israel.
She spent a year as an assistant rabbi in Orlando, Florida, before going on active duty in the Navy.
When asked how she manages the weight of her responsibilities, she quips: “My spin bike and I have an important relationship.” More seriously, she says that physical fitness “has to be part of your routine. How to take care of myself factors into the equation. In every moment, I represent the U.S. Navy.”
But she also represents the Jewish people, and whatever they need in her realm, she will try to do and get. She estimates that about 10,000 Jews are serving active duty in the U.S. military, though believes the number is higher than that.
And while she wears Judaism on her sleeve (quite literally), many others do not. When asked about antisemitism within the ranks, she replies that more often than not, issues that do arise come from a place of ignorance, from an unawareness that she helps rectify by explanations. Along those lines, “it takes talking and being present, lovingly engaging with those who just don’t know,” she says.
“Honor, courage and commitment” … these aren’t just words; it is part of her job to encourage inclusion and respect, she stresses. There are recourses, she adds, for serious actions, but more often than not, she narrows it down to ignorance vs. antisemitism.
“The military is a reflection of society,” she points out. “There are half-truths, there is the not knowing. So let’s start a conversation. We don’t need to come out with guns blazing, because the situation is more easily rectified with a gentle, open hand. There are plenty who just question, who just don’t know.”
That said, her job is to show the pride of Yiddishkeit — the need to support Jews wherever they are. She urges the Jewish community to do the same: “Contact the JWB-Jewish Chaplains Council and ask how you can help the Jewish military community. Reach out, be active. It’s about Jews taking care of Jews.”
“We have Jewish lay leaders who volunteer to lead the Jewish program on a base where there is no rabbi assigned. Supporting them, and the rabbis who serve is incredibly meaningful for us. We are a small but mighty group,” Creditor said. “But you, too, can be connected. When someone who doesn’t know you feels your support and presence, it makes a world of difference.” JE
To learn more about the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council or how to support the military, contact Rabbi Irving Elson at: jcca.org/what-we-do/jwb.