Camouflage-covered prayer books?

To a Jewish soldier stationed far from home, such items are scarce and valuable commodities, as welcome as discovering a like-minded soldier to share a Shabbat evening dinner. An entire weekend dedicated to their spiritual wellbeing can be even rarer.

According to organizers, those facts are what make this weekend’s annual Military Shabbaton and Training Conference at The Shul in Bal Harbour, Fla., so important. Hosted by the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization whose Enduring Traditions Chaplaincy Program helps Jewish men and women in the U.S. armed forces maintain their religious connection, the Feb. 11-14 event will bring together more than 300 service personnel, lay leaders and congregants for presentations by military leaders.

Maj. Gen. Howard Bromberg, commander of the U.S. Army installation at Fort Bliss, Texas, will deliver the keynote address, focusing on the concept of spiritual resilience as a way to help soldiers cope with the various challenges and crises of military life. Other presenters include retired Vice Adm. Malcolm I. Fages of the U.S. Navy; Rear Adm. Robert F. Burt, chief of chaplains for the Navy; and Maj. Gen. Douglas Carver, chief of chaplains for the Army.

Attendees hail from posts in places as diverse as Europe, Afghanistan and Korea.

According to Rabbi Sanford Dresin, Aleph’s director of military programs, military chaplaincy has its roots in the First Amendment and its guarantees of religious freedom for all citizens.

In 2006, the Defense Department appointed the Aleph Institute as an Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agency to recruit, vet and endorse rabbis to serve as chaplains for the Army, Navy, and Air Force; their reserves and the U.S. National Guard. The organization also appoints and trains Jewish lay leaders to assist in those places where no Jewish chaplains are available, such as at distant installations or aboard ships at sea.

Dresin estimated that there are approximately 4,000 to 5,000 Jewish men and women serving in the U.S. military, although the exact number is hard to determine since many individuals do not identify themselves as belonging to a specific religious group.

Those helped by the Aleph Institute include soldiers of all ranks, such as an Army Captain in Baghdad who was the lone Jew on his base. Adding to his isolation was the frustration of all his repeated requests for materials such as prayer books and Shabbat candles being ignored by the chain of command.

A chaplain in Kuwait referred the officer to Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of outreach at the Aleph Institute, who put him in contact with other Jewish soldiers in the area and shipped out a package containing Shabbat candles, tefillin, a Kiddush cup and prayer books.

“We are in touch with thousands of Jewish soldiers, directly and indirectly,” said Katz. “Every day, we send out books printed in camouflage, yarmulkes, grape juice, and kosher field rations. Because of all the red tape involved, the lone soldier stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan has almost no chance of getting these things through the regular channels.”

Rabbis in Uniform

Counseling enlisted men and women is also a big part of the chaplaincy program, according to Dresin. He refers to chaplains as “rabbis in uniform,” whose advice about various aspects of Jewish law and help with combat-related issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder help soldiers cope with injuries, and transition from civilian to military life, and back again.

“The Aleph Institute was always there for us,” said Capt. Henry Soussan, a past attendee of two previous Shabbatons who was looking forward to this year’s. “They sent me a Torah scroll so that I could conduct prayer series.

“This is a great opportunity to meet other like-minded people, and it’s important for the civilian community to interact with us and learn about what we’re doing,” added Soussan, who served in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and now teaches at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School in Columbia, S.C. “It’s very inspirational, not only for the chaplains but the other service people as well.”