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New Pentagon Directive Opens Door for More Jewish Chaplains

New Pentagon Directive Opens Door for More Jewish Chaplains

Rabbi Mendy Stern, center right, was once denied a commission in the U.S. Army Chaplaincy Corps because of his beard. He is now a captain on active duty, stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
Rabbi Mendy Stern, center right, was once denied a commission in the U.S. Army Chaplaincy Corps because of his beard. He is now a captain on active duty, stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

A much-needed increase in the number of rabbis in fatigues may soon become a reality in the United States.

On Jan. 22, the Department of Defense issued a directive easing rules on beards and other displays of religious beliefs for military personnel in all branches of the armed forces. While special allowances have been made in rare cases in the past, the new directive gives wider leeway, especially for the existence of facial hair.

The military can now only deny the expression of “sincerely held belief” if it is judged to “have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline.”

With a sorely felt shortage of Jewish chaplains throughout the military, the rule change is expected to pave the way for the enlistment of bearded rabbis as military chaplains, a near impossible goal under the previously strict grooming code. The rule change will also affect Sikhs, Muslims and members of other religion groups, encompassing beards, turbans and other forms of religious expression.

The change in policy was welcomed by both Jewish military chaplains and lay leaders.

Rabbi Mendy Katz, director of prison and military outreach at the Aleph Institute—a Florida-based, Chabad-affiliated organization that provides social services and Jewish resources to military personnel and their families—explains that the directive has been eagerly awaited.

“We at Aleph have been trying for years to get the military to approve rabbis with beards across the board,” he says. “This has been a long time in coming, and it will do a lot to help the Jews who are serving our country in the military.”

For chaplains like Rabbi Stern, bringing Judaism to the troops can sometimes be a family affair.
For chaplains like Rabbi Stern, bringing Judaism to the troops can sometimes be a family affair.

The new regulation serves to further push a military establishment that is traditionally averse to change. In 2010, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Mendy Stern, who had been denied a commission in the U.S. Army Chaplaincy Corps because of his beard, filed a federal lawsuit against the Army with the help of the Aleph Institute, claiming his constitutional rights to religious freedom and equal protection under the law had been violated. After a year-long battle, the Army ultimately settled, allowing him a one-time exception.

Stern is now a captain on active duty, stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

“We live in a great country where religious freedom is respected,” adds Katz. “It may be hard for an institution like the military to make changes, but these are changes that must be made.”

He believes that the new rules will usher in an era of more Orthodox—and specifically, Chabad—rabbis enlisting in the military as chaplains. “Rabbi Stern is a very successful chaplain, and there is a great opportunity for many more,” he says.

‘Major Breakthrough’

Stern is not the only rabbi to have received a special exemption for his nonconforming facial hair. Rabbi Jacob Goldstein is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve who has worn a beard since he joined in 1977.

“There was a lot of back-and-forth when I joined the Army; it eventually went all the way up to the chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Bernard Rogers,” recalls Goldstein. “He wrote a letter that said that as long as I remain a member of the Lubavitcher Chassidic group, I can keep my beard, and I’ve held on to that letter ever since. After he left, they got really tight about the regulation, and it stayed that way for 30 years.”

Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, has worn a beard since he joined in 1977.
Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, has worn a beard since he joined in 1977.

Goldstein, who throughout his career has been deployed numerous times to combat zones, including Grenada, Iraq and Afghanistan, describes the new allowance as a “major breakthrough,” and points to the case of Mendy Stern as having been a significant step towards the eventual reversal of protocol banning facial hair.

“Before Mendy Stern there was no avenue to bust through, but that’s changing now,” he says. “There’s a real need for Jewish chaplains, and this is really going to give the military a better shake at getting them.”

While some have argued in the past that beards may be dangerous by getting in the way of properly affixing a gas mask, for example, Katz dismisses the claim by pointing to the Israeli military, where a beard is far from an unusual sight and where having one has not proved a conflict as part of active duty.

Goldstein agrees: “I’ve experienced the gas chamber [a military training exercise that simulates a gas attack using modified pepper spray], Mendy Stern has experienced it; we’ve never had any problems masking.”

Ultimately, explains Goldstein, the directive crystalizes the exception that Stern received into a military-wide regulation. “The Army lives in a world of Army regulation, as do the Navy, Air Force and Marines. So this is really big.”

‘Guarded Optimism’

Rabbi (Col.) Sanford Dresin is a retired Army chaplain who is the director of military programs at the Aleph Institute, as well as a chaplain endorser for the U.S. Department of Defense. It was Dresin who fought alongside Stern in his battle to join the Army—a fight he feels contributed greatly to last week’s development. While he welcomes the news and describes himself as “very happy” to hear it, Dresin also sounds a note of “guarded optimism.”

He explains that “while this Department of Defense directive provides instruction to the various branches, it is still up to them how they will implement this. So the question remains how they will go about this. If they want, they can still drag their feet and make it very difficult to prove that you’re sincere.

“My biggest concern remains the Marine Corps. They’ve said that they want to backtrack on allowing yarmulkas, so we have to see what happens.”

Still, Dresin says that if it’s true, “then I’m ecstatic about this. I want to see more young rabbis with beards, and I certainly want to see more Chabadniks join the military. Mendy Stern is doing a great job, and I hope to see good candidates step forward.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for someone who wants to go on shlichus and who is also physically fit. This is not a desk job; you have to get out there with the soldiers. You spend a lot of time with your constituents in the field.”

The new directive was released as the Aleph Institute gears up to host its seventh annual Aleph Military Jewish Chaplain and Lay Leader Training Program at the Shul of Bal Harbour in Surfside, Fla., which begins on Feb. 6. The conference, which draws chaplains and lay leaders from across the spectrum of the U.S. military, will focus on its theme of “Training in Tactics and Strategy for Ministry in a Changing Military.” With the major shift in policy, the topic could not have been timelier.

“I want to see ultimately where this goes,” says Dresin. “We have to see how the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force go about this. It’s definitely raised the level of sensitivity within the military. They have been speaking about diversity; now we’ll see if they deliver.”

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Richard Cohen Wash. D.C. July 30, 2017

I spent 11 years on active duty in the Army 1965-976. In 1966 at Redstone Arsenal I asked for leave to go home for Passover. I was a student and leave was normally not allowed. I had an interview with the Post Chaplain, a southern Baptist. He asked me if I shaved on Saturday. This was a surprising question and I guessed that he must have know an orthodox Rabbi at some time. I told him the truth that I was not that observant. My leave was granted. 3 weeks later I met an orthodox Jewish draftee at services off post. He had an interesting story. His First Sergeant had been giving him a hard time about not shaving prior to Saturday inspection until 3 weeks prior. At that time the First Sergeant came to him an apologized. They reached an agreement that he would shave every Friday just before sunset. In my experience most of the Army is willing to take an extra step to make it possible to be Jewish. I'm glad to hear the beards are no longer an issue. Reply

Anonymous Louisiana December 8, 2015

A Jewish woman in the US Army in 1974 I volunteered for VietNam War service. My father and my grandfather had served so I felt I should too.
I made the mistake of asking when and where Jewish worship services were on my first day in Basic Training and my life was hell after that.
Fistfights. Harassment. Punishment details.
I was accused of being a spy for Israel.
I had to write to my Congressman who personally interceded to get me out of the service.
some of the things I heard in there.
Whenever I would get attacked,nobody saw or heard anything.
I think I heard every derogatory word for Jews in the English language.
it is too late for me. I was hoping things would be better now.
The Pentagon has all sorts of legalisms to disobey their own directives and get you. I got out with a Good conduct medal.
If I had it to do again, I would serve in the IDF. Reply

Daniel formerly Dover AFB January 29, 2014

Makes no difference, especially for regular Jews who serve It would be nice to see this actually go somewhere and see it built upon. But the military culture that I have experienced in the Air Force has been extremely hostile to Jewish observance and even down right vindictive. Whether a few more rabbis will be able to have beards, this makes little impact for your enlisted service members who are observant and wish to grow a beard. Among Christian culture, clergy members are given more leeway to be religious but laity is simply not given the same religious expression because the clergy does it all for them. Don't ask for payos or tzitzis though, their heads would just explode, I know because I have tried it. The incredible amounts of red tape and wild goose chases I had to go through just to wear a yarmulke was unbelievable, the AF is the only branch with a uniform kippah. They didn't even accept mine after I had it tailored from an uniform nor a black one. Trying to observe the Shabbat and other holidays was purposely made difficult. Reply

Gale Torregrossa January 29, 2014

Jewish Chaplains It is much needed for the troops and their families are entitled to their religious rights and services as all members of the military, Mazel Tov! Reply

Anonymous January 27, 2014

Great news Congratulations. Reply

Eliyahu Pinero January 27, 2014

This is great news for all in the Military. Sometimes, it is difficult find a Rabbi. The VA Hospital in Seattle does not have a Jewish Chaplain. Perhaps now we do not have to lean on to a Buddhist Chaplain, or from any other religion to give us words of comfort. Reply

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