Rabbi Yechezkiel Tenenbaum begins with what has now become a routine account, at least, for him: “I am someone who first made news because of my beard.” By the way, “everyone calls me Chesky,” says this soft-spoken man who grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
For the past two years, Tenenbaum has resided in the Park Heights section of Baltimore with his wife, Chani, and their four young children. He serves Chabad of Maryland, specifically as associate rabbi of Chabad of Park Heights, and is director of the Jewish Uniformed Service Association of Maryland, or JUSA.
And he has garnered some real media attention since 2006.
That year, he had to appeal—and later was granted the ability—to serve as a chaplain in the Maryland Defense Force, a branch of the U.S. military that supports the National Guard. The issue was a rather unusual one; it focused not on his capabilities, but on his beard. While he has told this story often, he has recently opened a new chapter in his career.
The 34-year-old has just been promoted to the elevated status of 4th rank, what the army calls “04.” That comes with the corresponding title of major, up from his former captain status. With a sense of awe, he explains: “I believe I am now the highest-ranking Chassidic rabbi serving as a chaplain in the State Guard and Defense Force,” which is what Maryland calls this branch of their military.
Because he works as a volunteer, the promotion won’t come with a raise, though he will have more responsibilities for a greater number of people. “The truth is, it's more of an honor. And it is certainly an honor," states the rabbi.
But back to the beard, he says half-jokingly.
After leaving Crown Heights, Tenenbaum and his wife settled in Maryland, where he became associate rabbi at the Chabad in Gaithersburg. “While we were there, I was serving as the chaplain at a local hospital in Maryland, where I used to do a Shabbat service every Friday,” he explains. “It was there that I met a gentleman who had joined one of the services. Afterwards, he mentioned he was retired from the military, and since I have an uncle in the military, we had a nice discussion.”
Rabbi Tenenbaum at a Rockville, Md., Volunteer Fire Department memorial service
“Two months later, that same gentleman called me up and asked me to contact the Maryland Defense Force about becoming a chaplain for them. ‘What about my beard?’ I remember asking, because I knew this would be an issue.”
In the military, with its uniformity and adherence to rules, facial hair is not allowed. Tenenbaum didn’t expect they would make an exception for him. But it turns out that his uncle—the one he mentioned to the man in the hospital—is a well-respected chaplain and colonel in the U.S. Army, Chaplain Col. Jacob Goldstein.
Goldstein was, in fact, the first member of the U.S. Army to be allowed to have a beard. He has been in service—first in the New York State National Guard and later in the U.S. Army Reserves—since 1977, with a beard.
So the issue is, by now, two generations deep in their family.
“My uncle traveled from New York to Maryland for the ceremony when I originally became a chaplain in the defense force, and the general there and my uncle did the pinning of my original rank at the ceremony,” says Tenenbaum. “My uncle has been very supportive and helpful to me.”
'Serving Those Who Serve Us'
After earning his smicha, or rabbinical ordination, in 2002, Tenenbaum pursued the idea of becoming a chaplain for the military, with the required military basic training. Though the beard came into play in 2006 while he was still at the Chabad House in Montgomery County, Md., it wasn’t until the following year that the issue got resolved.
Tenenbaum says, “I was the first Chassidic rabbi to go into the chaplaincy in Maryland’s Defense Force, but several others have followed me on a similar route, in other states across the country, using my beard exemption.”
He fills other communal roles as well, serving as chaplain of the Volunteer Fire Department in Rockville, Md., and chaplain of the Shomrim Society of Maryland.
Tenenbaum assists Lenny Chornock, deputy fire chief of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, don tefillin. (Photo: Marc Asnin)
And somehow, he had the idea and necessary energy to do more, creating and launching JUSA, which was incorporated last year. The organization serves as an outreach program for law-enforcement members in Maryland; that is, members of the fire department, police force, public-safety officers and the military, connected by their heritage.
“These service members give so much of themselves,” says the rabbi. “But they were not being properly served for their religious needs. I sought to correct that by providing the Jewish members with services before each of the Jewish holidays, as well as other events that bring Jews together and keep them connected.
“Most recently, we offered a Rosh Hashanah event at two different armories in Baltimore and held a Sukkot party for law-enforcement members. We have people come out to these events and the thing is, until a short time ago, they never had any of these services available to them before,” he says. “I feel very gratified that we can offer these programs and that JUSA is growing, having become a 501(c)(3) this year.
“Our motto is: Serving those who serve us.”
He feels quite strongly that “law-enforcement members need someone there for them, the way they are always there for others. This is a way for me to give back to them for all they do to protect the public and the country.”
The JUSA programs Tenenbaum offers cycle throughout the Jewish calendar year. He has noticed that those who attend aren’t always Jewish. “Jews and non-Jews alike come to learn. A general attended our Pesach service last year because he said he wanted to learn more about it.”
The rabbi and his family regularly get to host a rather special crowd: “We have law-enforcement officers over to our house. Our guests are usually from the surrounding local areas, and we invite them to come with their families so we can be together in a family setting to enjoy Shabbat or holiday celebrations.”
Rabbi Chesky and Chani Tenenbaum with their children
With the High Holidays now over, Tenenbaum is turning his attention to Chanukah. “I’ll begin by sending something to my superiors about the date I’m proposing for the holiday get-together. Then I’ll work on putting together the prayers for the service. We always begin with a prayer for the safety and security for all uniformed officers in harm’s way.”
And, of course, he says, the festival will involve the lighting of the menorah, an explanation of the holiday’s customs, and the requisite sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) and gelt (chocolate coins). Menorahs and candles will be distributed to those who need them.
As always, Tenenbaum will be on hand to answer questions and talk to individuals.
“The role of a chaplain, since it is a volunteer job, is not so much based on a daily schedule," he explains. "It is more to be on call to address the needs as they come up.” And they can come up at any time, especially as folks approach the holidays.
“I also try to be available at the bimonthly drills held for Defense Force members,” he adds. “Soldiers of all religions come to me and the other chaplains for counseling.” After all, that’s the real gist of the job.