They came from places like the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University to become warriors. They came from Penn State University and SUNY-Stony Brook, Kent State and Harvard, Purdue and Duke, and thousands more.
The U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps was formed more than a century ago, through President Woodrow Wilson’s National Defense Act of 1916. But the military has recruited officers from civilian colleges for much longer, possibly as early as 1819, the Army said.
More than two-thirds of the current active-duty Army general officers were commissioned through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps — better known by its acronym, ROTC.
And a Pittsburgh-based rabbi dived into the opportunity to serve those ROTC officers during intensive, Army Cadet Command training this summer in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“These are the future leaders of the Army — and all of this is about leadership,” said Rabbi Elisar Admon, a Squirrel Hill-based mohel and Army chaplain. “What we tried to do as chaplains is to be with the cadets from Day 1, helping them to become better leaders and to deal with emotional crises. Our mission is to bring God to the soldiers, and the soldiers to God… I was there at every moment.
“When the cadets were on the field, we were on the field. When the cadets were in the barracks, we were in the barracks.”
Admon took a winding path to get where he is today.
Born in Israel, he and his wife, Tovi, moved to Pennsylvania around 10 years ago. Previously, Admon worked as an educator and EMT and also served in the Israel Defense Forces. There, among other duties, he gathered the blood and displaced body parts of victims of terrorist attacks and disasters for proper burial according to Jewish law.
Admon became a mohel around 2018, then graduated in September 2020 from the Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. Since then, he’s continued practicing both professions and was attached as a chaplain with the Army Reserves at the 316th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) in Coraopolis, part of a unit that counts among them some 9,000 officers and civilians.
When he’s not performing circumcisions or marching alongside the Army troops he counsels, Admon works as a compassionate ear for the incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Fayette, a 2,000-bed, maximum-security prison in a remote section of Fayette County.
Admon talks about his experience this summer at Fort Knox — his second tour of duty as a chaplain in the cadet program — in ways similar to how he describes the myriad things he’s done since arriving in western Pennsylvania.
“It’s something that builds a trust,” Admon said. “People are willing to speak with me in a way they don’t talk to anyone else.”
A lot of people waded, in fact, into some pretty deep waters when talking this summer with Admon, he said.
“One [cadet] said, ‘They’re teaching us here to kill,’” Admon said. “‘But how can we kill if God says not to murder?’
“There were some pretty deep conversations.”
Army ROTC, which bills itself as the American military’s largest officer-producing organization, has commissioned about a half-million second lieutenants since its inception.
Admon, who lived and worked in Kentucky from June 20 through Aug. 18, worked alongside 10 advanced regiments with about 500-600 cadets each and three basic regiments with about 1,200 to 1,300 cadets each, he said. The regiments are separated based on years studied in college.
The “advanced” regiments, for example, took part in a 35-day training event designed “to develop a cadet’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and to forge them into tough, adaptable leaders who can thrive in ambiguous and complex environments,” the Army said on the cadet program’s website.
“Cadets are mentally and physically tested during a 12-day, consequence-driven field training exercise that replicates a combat training center rotation,” the Army said.
In the meantime, Admon and his group of chaplains conducted 12 different services each week, from Jewish, Catholic and Muslim to Wiccan, and for cultural groups such as Native Americans and the African-born, he said. Admon led every Friday night Shabbat service the group held.
Admon is a family life chaplain at the 80th Training Command Center and was a supervisor chaplain at Fort Knox, serving cadets of many faiths. And he sees big differences between his work there and with soldiers in Israel.
“It’s totally different,” he said. “As a rabbi in the IDF, they’re focusing on religious life in the army — the kosher kitchen and all of that. Here, I have more time to deal with a soldier as a human being.
“A lot of the time, when I’m counseling, I don’t even bring up religion, if the soldiers do not feel comfortable to bring it up.”
Admon said that’s fairly common among chaplains.
“People can fight but, as a religious figure … we’re above the politics,” Admon said. “As religious people, we support everyone — and that’s important.”
“We have, over the course of the summer, over 6,500 cadets,” said Jonathan Lorenz, an Indiana native and Lutheran chaplain for 16 years and the program’s lead chaplain — also known as deputy cadet command chaplain at Fort Knox.
“They represent every faith group you could possibly think of in the United States,” Lorenz said. “We want to be able to accommodate every member of every faith group we can. We also want to make sure these future leaders of the Army see their faith group represented.”
Senior Army ROTC has 274 programs at colleges and universities in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, with an enrollment of more than 33,000 cadets, according to the Army. There are 1,709 Junior ROTC units and more than 300,000 junior cadets.
Due to Admon’s previous expertise with the cadet program, he was selected to supervise and mentor three “intern chaplains,” Lorenz said.
“I think Chaplain Admon did very well,” Lorenz added. “He represented to the brand-new cadets what it really means to take care of soldiers, from a chaplain’s perspective. He was really the face of that.”
Admon’s happy to be back in Squirrel Hill, he said. He missed his wife and six children, as well as the larger Jewish community in Pittsburgh.
But, he also has his sights set on his next deployment as chaplain. This winter, shortly before Chanukah, Admon will travel to Kuwait for 45 days to serve soldiers there. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.