In another day and age, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Zalman Lipskier's full length beard might have prevented his being a military chaplain. But in a sign of the times, when Lipskier is formally commissioned as a chaplain in the Georgia State Defense Force and its Army and Air National Guards, he will become the first Jewish chaplain in the state's military history, beard and all.
"It's a matter of having authentic Jewish representation in the Defense Force, or not," says Commanding General Michael McGuinn about the special waiver that allows Lipskier to keep his facial hair. "Rabbi Lipskier is a fine, fine man, and he will perform a tremendous service for the troops. We're thrilled to have him join us."
When he's not wearing his battle dress, Lipskier counsels students at the Chabad House at Emory University, which he co-directs with wife Miriam Lipskier. The couple offer classes for Emory's Jewish students, run Shabbat and holiday programs and lead trips to Israel. They also serve Jewish students at Georgia State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Lipskier, though, also has a five-year history of volunteer chaplaincy at Fort Benning, location of the U.S. Army Infantry School. His appointment to the Georgia State Defense Force represents the second time a Chasidic rabbi has joined one of the nation's 25 volunteer State Defense Forces. Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum, who also received a special waiver for his beard, joined the Maryland Defense Force back in November.
In his new role, Lipskier, 31, will provide critical chaplaincy services for the some 13,500 troops in Georgia's National Guard and their families, regardless of religious denomination. Chief among his tasks will be to assist soldiers deploying abroad, as well as those returning from combat zones.
"I'll be there for them and their families," says the rabbi, "when they go out and when they return safely, G‑d willing."
Lipskier's appointment was made possible by the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization based in Florida that assists Jewish soldiers and their families. As a recognized Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agency by the U.S. Department of Defense, Aleph provided Lipskier with the necessary credentials. It also provided financial assistance for the purchase of Lipskier's military uniforms and equipment.
"I've wanted Jewish representation in the Georgia State Defense Force and National Guard for a long time," says McGuinn, "and I was absolutely thrilled when a friend of mine told me that a Chasidic rabbi had joined the Maryland State Defense Force. He put me in touch with the Aleph Institute."
"For us to be able to work with The Aleph Institute in commissioning a rabbi of this caliber is a real asset for us," says Col. John Owings, the Joint Forces Chaplain for Georgia. "I have a high degree of trust in the ability of Chabad rabbis to provide pastoral care to people of all faiths.
"Rabbi Lipskier is already working with the student body at Emory and doing excellent work," he adds. "We will do everything we can to support him and ensure that he is on equal footing with all religious denominations."
For his part, Lipskier is excited about the challenge.
"I'm looking forward to using the vital resources and services provided by the Aleph Institute to help the many people who would not otherwise have Jewish chaplaincy or programming available to them," says Lipskier. "I very much appreciate the support and consideration of the Defense Force … for making the best interests of the soldiers a top priority."