Rabbi and military chaplain Bonnie Koppell Profiled
August 31, 1990
On August 31, 1990, in the midst of the build-up to the first Persian Gulf War, the Omaha, Nebraska, Jewish Press profiled Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, the first female rabbi to serve in the U.S. military. Koppell joined the U.S. Army Chaplaincy Corps in 1979, while still a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. After a poster promoting the program caught her eye, she signed up for a six-week stint at Fort Hamilton, New York, thinking that "it sounded like a different way to spend the summer."
Rabbi Koppell served as the chaplain for the 112th Military Intelligence Brigade at Fort Huachaca in Arizona, and in other postings. In 1991, she was placed on active duty at 5th Army Headquarters near San Antonio, Texas. In 2003, the Army sent her to Germany for a month, to the headquarters of the United States Army Europe. She served a year of active duty in support of Operation Noble Eagle in 2005. She spent Hanukah with Jewish service members in Kuwait and Afghanistan, and she was deployed to Iraq in 2006, bringing Passover seders to soldiers in Baghdad and Taji.
While fulfilling her reserve duty obligations through weekend training, Koppell also served for many years as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom, and later as the rabbi to the Temple Chai community, both in Phoenix, AZ. She told reporters that both the military and the synagogue had accommodated her dual career. For instance, the military had released her from Saturday training in honor of her Shabbat observance, and had also let her split her Sundays between training with the army and running Sunday School programs in Phoenix. Similarly, her congregation filled in for her while she was on duty with the Army in faraway places. Koppell saw the congregation's lay leadership in her absence as an expression of patriotism.
Koppell, who holds the rank of colonel, has been appointed Command Chaplain of the 63rd Regional Support Command. She has received many awards and citations from the Army, including a National Defense Service Medal (1992) and a Meritorious Service Medal (2002). She also received an award for Outstanding Volunteer Service (2000) and the Global War on Terrorism medal (2005). She received her Doctor of Divinity degree in 2006, and was invited to offer the opening prayer at a White House meeting of Jewish leaders with the President of the United States in 2007. She recently returned from a Passover trip to Kuwait in 2010.
To learn more about Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, visit In Focus: Jewish Women in the Military: Chaplains: Bonnie Koppell.
Sources:The Jewish Press (Omaha), August 31, 1990; Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, August 1, 2003, June 24, 2005; jwa.org/discover/inthepast/infocus/military/chaplains/koppell.html; www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/bonniekappell.html; www.azrabbi.com.