Navy Lieutenant Ben Kempner, thirty-two, wrestles with being a yarmulke-wearing, kosher-eating anomaly at work and a uniformed attraction sporting a crew cut in his Jewish community. Fearlessly jumping from combat-training planes in the middle of Fort Benning, Georgia, Lieutenant Kempner will admit that he’s not your typical frum physician.
A graduate of Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts, Lieutenant Kempner views his being the only frum naval officer at the Joint Expeditionary Base in Little Creek, Virginia, as a great opportunity. “I’m essentially an ambassador for our people, whether I want to be or not,” he says. “And my colleagues are able to say, ‘There’s Lieutenant Kempner; he’s a religious Jew and an outstanding naval officer.’”
Lieutenant Kempner, known around his command as “Doc,” took pre-med courses at the University of Maryland and planned to become a doctor in a nice Jewish community. When it came time to apply to medical school, he researched a few in the Maryland area. As an afterthought, he applied to the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, which prepares health professionals for careers with the Department of Defense. He got accepted. His father, a patriotic son of Holocaust survivors, urged him to go. “It’s been a wild ride ever since,” Lieutenant Kempner says.
During his first year in the Navy, Lieutenant Kempner worked round-the-clock in the military hospital. Aside from the physical demands, he faced some stressful halachic challenges. “I was desperately trying to arrange my schedule in a way that avoided my having to work on Shabbat and the holidays,” he says. “Sometimes I found myself stuck there for a Shabbat on call. I’d answer my pager, return the phone calls, write the orders, and do my job as any Navy physician; there is no k’lachar yad in my line of work. When the pager goes off, I answer it, because a patient issue needs to be addressed immediately.” [K’lachar yad, which literally means “in a backhanded fashion,” refers to performing a necessary activity on Shabbat in a manner different from the way in which one would normally do it. The idea is to distance the activity as much as possible from actions resembling Biblical definitions of labor.]
Pushed to the Limit
Lieutenant Kempner endured the rigorous training required of all naval officers, becoming an airborne qualified officer which had him participating in combat-jump training with Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal groups. “Those are the crazy guys who counter the IED [improvised `explosive device] threat in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Lieutenant Kempner. “They’re the ones in charge of finding and rendering the explosives and roadside bombs safe; they are in high demand in the war-fighting effort.”
His six grueling months of Navy diving school was no picnic either. “It’s the hardest physical training I’ve ever been through,” he says. “You’re at the pool at 4:50 am and the first thing you do is swim a thousand meters. Then the instructors do what they call ‘confidence training,’ which involves underwater tasks of increasing length and duration. If you dare get up to take a breath, the whole class will pay; they’ll have to hop out of the pool and do fifty pushups or more, then get back in and try it all over again. You can’t believe in physical or mental limitations; you have to believe that no matter how hard the task, you can get through it.”
He got through it, with a Navy diving certificate and a considerable boost in confidence. “I would have never imagined I was capable of this,” Lieutenant Kempner says. “I don’t think there’s a test I can’t study for now; I could walk into the office tomorrow and have twenty-five patients in the waiting room and it wouldn’t stress me out; I’d know I could handle it.”
Following a Higher Order
Growing up in a Torah-observant home prepared Lieutenant Kempner well for the Navy. “Like the military, Judaism is about orders. We have six hundred and thirteen,” he says. “When I write orders for my nurses and corpsmen, they aren’t just medical instructions; they are orders from a commissioned officer. When I receive direction from those above me, the same holds true. My boss isn’t just my boss; he’s my ‘ISIC’ [immediate superior in charge]. Moreover, yeshivah’s dual curriculum and its ten-hour days of juggling different classes taught me to multi-task. That translates to Navy life incredibly well.”
Lieutenant Kempner’s Jewish education, coupled with his quick sense of humor, has also helped him tackle colleagues’ inquiries about his “strange” practices. “Our calendar is peppered with holidays,” he says. “My colleagues may have heard of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but who’s ever heard of Sukkot, Shavuot or Tishah B’Av? I like bringing in all the Old Testament references and telling them: ‘If you’ll just crack open the Book of Deuteronomy, you’ll see it right there.’”
Lieutenant Kempner takes his she’eilot to his personal rav or the corps’ Jewish chaplains. “The chaplains have been an active resource for me,” he says. “If I ever find myself out on a field exercise for an extended period of time, I give them a phone call and promptly get a box of kosher MRE’s [meals ready to eat].”
Lieutenant Kempner specifically chose the Navy over other branches of the military. “The Navy, especially the Medical Corps, is by far the most reconcilable [to leading an Orthodox life] from a geographic standpoint,” says Lieutenant Kempner. Thus far, he has managed to spend his eight-year Navy career in proximity to Jewish communities, including Bethesda, Maryland; Groton, Connecticut and currently Norfolk, Virginia. “The possibility of a future assignment in Guam or Diego Garcia always exists,” he says, “but I will work hard to control my destiny.”
Right now, Lieutenant Kempner is grateful to be working “more normal hours” in a Navy clinic, but he expects to be rolling back into residency this summer. If the US is still in Afghanistan, it is possible he may be deployed. “Could I be required to work seven days a week for six months to help our sailors and Marines stay in the fight?” he asks. “Yes. Does the possibility of these things mean I should not have chosen this career path? I don’t think so.”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is a senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.