Four score and ten years passed between the formation of the Department of the Navy in 1798 and the appointment of the first Catholic Chaplain. It took another three score and nine before the Navy appointed a representative of a non-Christian faith to the rolls of its Chaplain Corps.
The Navy Regulations of 1876, it stated that Chaplains were to “instruct in the principles of the Christian Religion.” Clearly, a Chaplain from a faith such as Judaism or Islam could hardly be expected to instruct Sailors in the principles of a faith they found at loggerheads with their own. Seventeen years later, however, the Regulations were altered. Gone was the reference to Christian Religion; in its place were rules that said the Chaplain should help clergymen of other faiths whom the Captain might invite aboard in the performance of their “divine services.” Further, it specified that he could form voluntary classes for religious instruction.
With no mandate for Chaplains to be adherents to Christianity, the stage was set for the introduction of clergy from other faiths.
At the urging of Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas, the Navy agreed to appoint a Jewish Rabbi to the Chaplain to the Chaplain Corps in 1917. With this go-ahead, Sheppard asked the advice of British-American Dr. Henry Cohen of Galveston, whose credentials included membership on the advisory board of Hebrew Union College and deputy membership on the Council of the Jewish Agency. Cohen recommended Rabbi David Goldberg, who hailed from Corsicana, Texas. On October 30, 1917, Goldberg was appointed as an acting chaplain.
But while clearly acknowledging that it should meet the spiritual needs of Sailors of the Jewish faith, the Navy had not considered that Goldberg would be asked to don a uniform with a Latin Cross as its insignia. Chief of Chaplains John B. Frazier, who had assumed that position just six days after Goldberg’s appointment, tried to ease the conflict Goldberg must have been experiencing by explaining he’d entered into the Corps as a Chaplain who was Jewish instead of as a Jewish Chaplain. It was small comfort to Goldberg, who received scathing from many rabbis upon his return home from his first shipboard assignment.
In May, 1918, Goldberg wrote to the Bureau of Navigation requesting that he be permitted to substitute the Latin Cross with a six-pointed Star of David. The Bureau turned down his request not because of any religious quarrels, but because it was the same as the insignia worn by Army officers working with the General Staff. After Goldberg read in the June 29 issue of The Army and Navy Register that it had been suggested Hebrew Chaplains should wear a Shepherd’s Crook “as it has been in the Army,” he learned that the Crook had actually been the official Chaplain insignia in that service between 1880 and 1898, when it was changed to a cross.
Goldberg’s request to use the Shepherd’s Crook as an insignia at first met with some pushback because in his letter he suggested it be the “universal insignia” for Chaplains. Though Chief of Chaplains Frazier immediately shot down this notion, he gave his approval for the use of the Shepherd’s Crook as a Chaplain Corps insignia for those of the Jewish Faith. On June 26, 1918, the Secretary of the Navy officially approved this change.
Today, the Chaplain Corps insignia for Jewish Chaplains is the luchos, or the two tables of the Law given to Moses surmounted by the Star of David. The change from the Shepherd’s Crook was made in 1941.