JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas. —
Every Friday afternoon, Rabbi Rafael Berdugo conducts services at the Airmen’s Memorial Chapel on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. His congregation reaches across all denominations as the Air Force Major offers words of faith and guidance to all who attend.
His reach doesn’t stop inside the military installation. Rabbi Berdugo recently conducted funeral services off base for two Jewish veterans.
“When I first came here I was approached to help. Apparently they [Jewish community] had a hard time finding anyone to do [purifications],” said Berdugo. “It’s not something that can be done by anybody. It has to be someone who is a Sabbath observer.”
At first, Berdugo had some trepidation at first, but he has been performing the purification ceremonies ever since.
“It’s such an uplifting experience. It is a very spiritual experience,” said Berdugo.
Each of the recent purification ceremonies was performed at a local mortuary. One of the veterans was a World War II veteran. He was the first Jewish liberator to enter Dachau concentration camp in Munich, Germany.
“Everyone was just in awe when we were doing the purification, said Berdugo. “There were three of us.”
They also performed purification services on a second veteran that same day.
During each purification, the body is cleansed in a specific order while verses of the bible are read in the process. The body is then elevated in a ritual submersion, dried and pronounced pure. The body is dressed in shrouds in a specific order, lowered into a casket and wrapped in a prayer shawl. Dust that is brought in from Jerusalem is sprinkled in the coffin to simulate the beginning of the burial process. The casket is sealed. No wakes or viewings are held within the Jewish faith.
Berdugo said it is very important to live in a Jewish community and he has been welcomed not only within JBSA-Lackland, but in San Antonio.
“I’m in synagogue every single morning. I’m the one that opens the synagogue; the first one there, said Berdugo.”
Berdugo is one of two Rabbis stationed at Joint Base San Antonio.
Chaplain Lt. Col. Peter Fischer is the wing chaplain at JBSA-Lackland. He supervises Berdugo and a diverse staff which is one of the largest staffs in the Air Force. He said Berdugo is an important part of the team.
“I can send him to a unit and the unit embraces him,” said Fischer.
Fisher said Berdugo volunteers his time when called on to prepare bodies for burial and recalled how the Rabbi shared the story of the Greenberg’s history after preparing the veteran to be buried.
“So much pain and suffering for the Jewish community and for one of those who was able to see the liberation, see the beginning of the end of this horrible suffering,” said Fischer. “He [Berdugo] had the honor of preparing the body for burial.”
Fischer compared Berdugo to a super highway bridge to the local Orthodox community who is well known and knows many.
“He is a tremendously devout man of strong faith…When the hard times hit, he completely trusts God for his circumstances. No question. It’s not lip service,” said Fischer.
JBSA-Lackland presently has two Rabbis on its team and Fischer said they serve the JBSA-Fort Sam Houston and JBSA-Randolph communities as well.
“Having two Rabbis is not going to last forever. I’ll enjoy it while I can,” said Fischer.
So will Berdugo; this is the second time he has been assigned to JBSA-Lackland. His reach is multi-layered, beginning with those he counsels on base and off.
“I was always meant to be a Rabbi one day. The natural progression of things just happened,” said Berdugo.