Rabbi Menachem Stern has wanted to be an army chaplain since August 2008, when he came across a Jewish news site that got him thinking it was the right job for him. Halfway through an introductory meeting, he texted his wife to tell her, “I think I’ve found what we’re looking for.”
Several years and a lawsuit later, the graduate of Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivas expects to be sworn in next Friday and begin attending chaplain school in January. It could have happened sooner, but his beard got in the way.
In keeping with Jewish teachings regarding preserving a man’s facial hair, Stern does not cut or trim his beard. This previously stood him in opposition to official military codes for dress and appearance. Back in 2009, he had received preliminary approval for a reserve commission in the U.S. Army, but he was twice contacted about errors that would delay his swearing-in because the issue of his facial hair was not resolved.
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The Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization that assists Jewish military personnel, Jewish inmates and their families, and Sens. Charles E. Schumer, Kristen Gillibrand and Joseph Lieberman sought to persuade top brass that the rabbi should be able to keep his beard. They cited the case of Col. Jacob Goldstein, a bearded Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi and Army Reserve chaplain who has served with distinction in the reserves and National Guard on numerous international combat missions over the past 33 years.
When Stern was ultimately unable to secure the same exemption that Goldstein received years ago, he filed a federal lawsuit in December accusing the Army of violating his Constitutional rights to religious freedom and equal protection under the law.
The Army just recently settled the case.
According to Stern, from the military’s point of view, there’s a shortage of Jewish chaplains, while a cadre of bearded rabbis like himself are lining up for the chance to serve. Ultimately what matters, he said, is the ability of a Jewish soldier to be served by a rabbi sensitive to their needs and spiritual concerns. He believes others in the military will respect him for holding fast to his principles.
“A soldier, whether they’re Jewish or not, will see someone who is serious and standing by his faith without compromise,” explained Stern. “They’ll respect that person and come to trust him.”
Stern has the support of several U.S. senators and the Aleph Institute.
Rabbi Sanford Dresin, a career Army chaplain for more than 26 years who now serves as director of military programs for the Aleph Institute, said it has been a long road, but that he is happy the Army was able to work things out with Stern. He pointed to the rabbi’s academic skills and physical prowess as contributing factors, and added that he hopes the case will set a precedent for other rabbis and in the other branches of the military.
“Currently, there are only nine Army rabbis on active duty throughout the world,” he stated back in March, “and about 37 Jewish chaplains in the entire U.S. armed forces, including the reserves.
“Many Chabad rabbis would be willing to serve,” continued Dresin. “The military would benefit from the selflessness exhibited by emissaries like the Holtzbergs in Mumbai and other young couples who would go anywhere.”
Stern’s next step is his formal commission ceremony, which will take place at the Aleph Institute’s headquarters in South Florida. After chaplain school, he wants to request active duty.
“There’s always the possibility of being deployed somewhere overseas,” said Dresin. But Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries are willing to go anywhere for the sake of their mission, “which is exactly what chaplaincy is all about.”