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Top Gun Rabbi

by Sharon Schatz Rosenthal

August 14, 2003 | 8:00 pm

While you won't find Sarah Schecter soaring through the skies like Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," the Los Angeles resident has the honor of becoming the Air Force's first female rabbi.

Schecter, who was ordained in May at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, is currently a chaplain candidate.

Rather than flying F-16s, Schecter will serve as a spiritual leader and counselor for Jews in the Air Force. To prepare for her new career, she will go to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia later this summer to train with the rabbi there.

"It's an unexpected and wonderful surprise to be making history," said the 35-year-old second lieutenant. "On the other hand, I feel really sad, because of the lack of female rabbis that have pursued serving this community."

While Schecter's father was also an Air Force rabbi, she never had the intention of following in his footsteps. After spending time in Israel and serving the Jewish community in Japan during her college years, Schecter knew she wanted Judaism to be a central part of her life. Even so, she remembers her hesitancy when her mother suggested she explore the rabbinate.

"I said, 'You mean be a rabbi?'" Schecter recalled with a laugh.

Soon afterward, she decided that becoming a rabbi was indeed the right path. Her interest in the Air Force developed after Sept. 11.

"When I listened to the horrific stories of the World Trade Center coming down," she recalled, "I said to my husband, 'I'm going to join the military. I want to serve this community now.'"

At the end of the summer, Schecter expects to be promoted to first lieutenant. At that time, she will become a reservist awaiting active duty.

In the meantime, Schecter, who wears her "Tablets and Star" rabbinical pin on her fatigues and Air Force blues uniform, said she is thrilled to help boost morale among Jewish officers.

"It's an important part of social action," she said. "Here are Jews doing difficult work, and like anyone else, they need someone there for them so they don't have to be there alone."

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