Losing Rabbi David Lapp to retirement is "like losing someone on the battlefield, someone who suffered the mud and the pain and the loneliness with you," said Maj. Rabbi Carlos Huerta, the Jewish community chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy.
Lapp is retiring as head of the Jewish Welfare Board's Jewish Chaplains Council after 24 years. The father of three and grandfather of 10 will remain at his post until a replacement is found.
Lapp's proudest service achievement, he said, is his transdenominational prayer book, first produced for the U.S. Army in 1982. Before then, "there was a siddur that the armed forces produced, but it had sections for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox," he said. Lapp collaborated with rabbis from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, on it.
That's part of Lapp's modus operandi of supporting all Jewish chaplains in the military, and through them, Jewish soldiers -- no matter their denomination. There are 28 chaplains on active duty in the Army, Air Force and Navy and 43 reservists -- a number that has held steady for the past decade.
During his stint at the Chaplains Council, Lapp helped the Army provide ready-to-eat kosher meals for soldiers in the field. Before 1990, kashrut-observant soldiers had to make do with regular military rations, Lapp said, eating what they could, swapping the rest with other soldiers when possible.
Fellow chaplain Huerta, who performed the first Passover service in Baghdad in 2003 after Saddam Hussein was ousted, recalled that "Lapp got me my wine, matzah and gefilte fish for the seder."
Born in Austria in 1931, Lapp recalled that after the 1938 anschluss restrictive laws were quickly placed upon Austria's Jews. Lapp was first transferred to a Jewish school, then taken out of school altogether when it became too dangerous. His father was forced to work in a labor camp.
After the November 1938 Kristallnacht -- the rioting against Jews and especially Jewish merchants -- his American relatives, including his father's sister in Brooklyn, sponsored the family's visa.
Lapp was 9 when his family arrived in the United States. He went on to study political science and religious education at Yeshiva University and was ordained at the Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1957. He studied chaplaincy at the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
After receiving a commission in the Army Chaplain Corps in 1958, one of his early assignments was as an assistant chaplain in Munich. There, along with providing programs for Jewish personnel in Munich, Augsburg and northern Italy, he served as stockade chaplain at Dachau.
Lapp said it was strange to return to the region: "On the one hand, I wanted to be there to show that the Nazis didn't get rid of me as they wanted. On the other hand, I wanted nothing to do with them. But after a while, you realize they aren't the same people, they're the children."
During Lapp's chaplaincy, he said, "we had conferences with just kosher food just because we could -- to show we're here."
Another coup during Lapp's stint in Germany was a Jewish conference held in Berchtesgaden, Hitler's mountain retreat. The Army converted one of the buildings into the Gen. Walker Hotel, where Lapp held a gathering for Torah study, attended by about 500 Jewish men and women.
Ten years later, he returned to Germany as 1st Armored Division chaplain at Nuremberg. There he supervised 33 chaplains, managed religious programs of all faiths for eight communities and served as budget administrator for religious activities of the division.
Lapp served in Vietnam in 1966-67 as deputy field force chaplain, ministering to troops assigned to two divisions in II Corps Highlands Area. He retired from active duty in 1982 with the rank of colonel and was awarded the Legion of Merit by the Army.
Huerta described the chaplains' need for Lapp: "As a chaplain, I talk to soldiers, but who do I talk to? Without Rabbi Lapp, we would have gone by the wayside."