Born in 1940 in Rock Island, Illinois, one might ask, “How did a Jewish boy from the midwest become a rabbi?” Rabbi Frederick L. Wenger says that was relatively simple. “My father was in the wholesale produce business and passed away in 1954, when I was fourteen years old. After high school, I went to the University of Chicago, where I graduated in political science and then went on to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and became a Reform rabbi in 1969.”
However, that deceptively simple beginning has taken him across the U.S. and to continents in the Far East and Middle East. “After being ordained a rabbi, I joined the U.S. Army, spending a year at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and a year in Vietnam as a Jewish chaplain,” he explained. Rabbi Wenger was in Fort Jackson during the height of the Vietnam conflict, the post where many New York draftees were sent.
Here was a midwestern rabbi in the deep south serving as chaplain to a congregation of east coast Jews, Wenger described. “I would get up on a Saturday morning to confront 200 GIs there and say ‘Good morning fellow Jews. How many of you are here from Brooklyn? How many of you are here from the Bronx? How many of you are here from Staten Island? How many of you are from Long Island? How many of you are from Queens? How many from the rest of the country?”