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For Military's New Rabbi, a Beard is Part of the Uniform

For Military's New Rabbi, a Beard is Part of the Uniform

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Lenny Chornock, left, deputy fire chief of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department; Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum; Rabbi Jacob Goldstein; and Eric Bernard, president of the RVFD
Lenny Chornock, left, deputy fire chief of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department; Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum; Rabbi Jacob Goldstein; and Eric Bernard, president of the RVFD

Martin Hershkowitz knows what it means to be a volunteer – he serves as a colonel in the all-volunteer Maryland Defense Force and as a volunteer member of the FBI InfraGard Program and the Montgomery County Police Department, Maryland Volunteer and Community Services Division.

He also knows how hard it can be to find chaplains of any faith for America's uniformed personnel.

But when Hershkowitz spoke to Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum about volunteering for the Maryland Defense Force – one of 25 state militias in the country – he came up against an obstacle of a different kind.

Tenenbaum was worried about his beard.

The rabbi, who serves as one of the chaplains at the Shady Grove Rehabilitation Center in Rockville, Md., met Hershkowitz while he was recuperating from spinal surgery. They instantly became friends due in no small part to their shared love of serving other people.

Still, when Hershkowitz broached the idea of his friend joining the military chaplaincy, all Tenenbaum could think of was how hard it was for his uncle, Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, to become a chaplain in the U.S. Army. Today, Goldstein is a colonel and the only member of the armed forces with a full-length beard, but the quest to get an exemption for his facial hair almost drove him from the military.

"The military wants uniformity," said Rabbi Menachem Mendel Katz of the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-affiliated organization in Florida that assists Jewish members of the U.S. military. "Beards are forbidden."

Hershkowitz, though, did not give up and, assured that Tenenbaum was interested in the chaplaincy if there was a way for it to work, began working to make the rabbi's exemption a reality. He was bolstered by the knowledge that chaplains, especially Jewish ones, are in critical shortage at a time when National Guard units at home and abroad needed them most. In particular, Maryland National Guard units are facing combat deployment while others are in the process of returning home from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He first contacted Maryland Defense Force Chief Chaplain Charles Nalls, a lieutenant colonel, who then contacted Col. William Sean Lee, chief chaplain of the Maryland National Guard Joint Force Headquarters. Eventually, with the concurrence of Brig. Gen. Courtney Wilson, commanding general of the Maryland Defense Force, and Maj. General Bruch Tuxill, Maryland's adjutant general, Lee gave the go-ahead for Tenenbaum to receive an exemption just like his uncle.

Beyond Maryland

Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum puts on tefillin with Martin Hershkowitz, who told the rabbi about the chaplaincy opening.
Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum puts on tefillin with Martin Hershkowitz, who told the rabbi about the chaplaincy opening.
Next week, Tenenbaum will be commissioned as a captain and chaplain in the Maryland Defense Force during a ceremony at the Lubavitch Center Upper Montgomery County in Gaithersburg, where he serves as youth director. After taking his oath of office, he'll be Maryland's very-first Chasidic chaplain.

Hershkowitz said that with the help of Katz and the Aleph Institute, he is now working on getting other states to accept chaplains of the bearded variety. Currently, eight states are interested in making 11 Jewish chaplaincy slots available through the Aleph Institute.

"This ground-breaking commissioning represents the establishment of a pathway for Chasidic rabbis to serve in a military capacity," said Lt. Col. Robert T. Hastings, a public information officer for the Maryland Defense Force. "Plans are in motion to identify and commission additional Chasidic rabbis to serve with several additional state defense forces."

For Tenenbaum, who also is the chaplain of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, he has an excellent opportunity to reach out to Jewish servicemen and servicewomen in both the Maryland Defense Force and the Maryland National Guard.

"I plan to offer them support and, if they want, to conduct services with them," said the rabbi, who will officially be tasked to the Maryland National Guard 175th Regiment in White Oak.

"This is an amazing event," said Katz at the Aleph Institute. "This hopefully is a stepping stone to have more rabbis work voluntarily in the military."



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