Rachels, lugging about a hefty backpack, trudges through a forced march during OCS training at Fort Benning.

Rebecca Rachels, lugging about a hefty backpack, trudges through a forced march during OCS training at Fort Benning.

BY RON FEINBERG / WEB EDITOR //

Jennifer Rachels, a sergeant with the 130th Engineer Brigade in Hawaii, will be deployed to Afghanistan later this summer. Rachels, an Atlanta native and former member of Congregation Shearith Israel in Morningside, is a chaplain’s assistant and serves as a special liaison for Jewish personnel assigned to her unit.

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It’s a rewarding, often exciting job that Rachels is uniquely qualified to handle. What’s interesting is that a few years ago she wasn’t in the army and, most remarkably, wasn’t even Jewish.

The journey that’s taken her from the suburbs of Atlanta has been a rambling and circuitous affair, filled with a few bumps in the road and at least one religious epiphany.

“I’m ready to go,” Rachels, now 37, said during a recent interview. “I just need to remember not to build things up in my mind and to take things a day at a time.”

That’s pretty much a philosophy that’s been part of her life for years.

After graduating from Druid Hills High School and the University of Georgia, Rachels joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Roman, Romania, a small city about four hours northeast of Bucharest. She returned home for a brief time, then ended up in Americus, Ga. working at the international headquarters of Habitat for Humanity.

Over the next several years she spent time in Washington, D.C., then back in Georgia working for the state and a few non-profit organizations. Meanwhile, she started paying close attention to her spiritual life.

“When I was in the Peace Corp I had sort of a ‘vision quest’ moment and I knew that I was a believer,” she said. “I was simply unsatisfied with the environment I had grown up in.”

That environment, what she now calls “cultural Christianity,” left her feeling cold and alone. After a bit of research and soul searching, Rachels approached Rabbi Hillel Norry at Shearith Israel who promptly sent her away.

“He did all the right stuff, sending me away several times,” Rachels said. “Finally, I came back and said, ‘okay, I’m really ready,’ and Rabbi Norry laughed and said that he’d been waiting for me to return and get started.”

She studied with Norry for two years and in 2007 converted to Judaism.

Her move to the military came a few years later as the nation’s economy was cratering and Rachels was struggling to find work. Unfortunately for her, and millions of others, it seemed there were few good jobs around that paid well and offered decent benefits.

“I’d find work and then lose a job in a few months,” Rachels said. “Here I was, a 35-year-old woman, out of work and without benefits. This just wasn’t tolerable anymore.”

It turns out the answer to her employment problem was hidden away in a strip mall in north Atlanta; a military recruitment center that she spotted next to a supermarket and decided “out of the blue” to investigate.

A year later she was headed to Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks for basic training.

“It was really fun,” Rachels said. “Younger recruits were flipping out, but I was used to being on my own. I also learned that I wasn’t too old to enjoy sliding down a rope into a mud puddle.”

After two months of training, she was off to Fort Benning outside of Columbus, Ga. for Officer’s Candidate School, a program, unfortunately, she failed to complete. Rachels, and several other recruits in her class, were forced to set aside their dreams of becoming officers – if they wanted to stay in the army – and agree to accept assignments as enlisted personnel.

It was a providential move that would take her back to Fort Leonard Wood to train as a heavy equipment operator, then on to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, command headquarters for the battle-hardened 130th Engineer Brigade.

“It was great,” Rachels said of her initial training at Fort Leonard Wood. “I was riding around in these huge machines … around other people just like me and we made it fun for each other. Then I got really lucky and was sent to Hawaii.”

One of the first people she met at Schofield was the unit’s chaplain, Maj. John Sedwick. She contacted him to ask his help in explaining the laws of kashrut to her superiors. They became friends and when a position opened up in the chaplain’s office, Sedwick thought of Rachels.

“I have a weird set of skills from all of my jobs over the years and it’s something the army values,” Rachels said. For now, she’s become the chaplain’s assistant and spends her days handling administrative tasks. She’s also available to counsel soldiers dealing with a variety of problems.

“We see everything and deal with everything,” Rachels said. “Women being integrated into units; people and families struggling with long-term deployment; sexual assaults … all of that comes into the office every single day.”

She’s also the unit’s liaison for Jewish personnel, pulling together services, providing prayer books and ritual garb; getting the answers to questions and dealing with religious issues that impact the spiritual lives of hundreds of people.

“I’m now in a position to help others,” Rachels said, “just like Maj. Sedwick was able to help me when I first arrived at Schofield.”

All such work will take on an added measure of importance and urgency when Rachels arrives in Afghanistan later this summer. One of her first missions will be to locate a facility to hold High Holiday services. Meanwhile, administrative tasks will continue and counseling issues will, no doubt, become more arduous. After all, Rachels and her comrades will be living in a war zone.

“I worry much more about the possibility of someone being badly injured or killed,” Rachels said, “than I worry about my personal safety.”

She also worries that many people don’t have a good understanding of what the army has to offer and its impact on the country.

“It’s super important that people know that the majority of veterans and active duty personnel are happy and prosperous,” she said. “The army is a safe place for young adults to live and prosper – and get a paycheck. It’s a productive and healthy way to live.”

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