Jewish military chaplains gathered this weekend for the Aleph Institute’s fifth annual Military Sabbath Retreat and Training Course in Miami, Fla.

Billed as an opportunity “to decompress and be strengthened,” in the words of Rabbi Sanford Dresin, the retreat has become a central event for the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization that provides for the physical and spiritual needs of Jewish soldiers and prisoners at home and abroad.

“They’re out there all year giving of themselves,” explained Dresin, a career Army chaplain for more than 26 years who now serves as director of Aleph’s military programs. “They need to be strengthened.”

The weekend gathering kicked off at The Shul of Bal Harbour Thursday morning with classes and events exploring the theme of diversity in the U.S. armed forces. Over the next several days, participants looked at current issues in the military from a Jewish perspective and looked at tools for chaplains to succeed in their work.

On Sunday, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner came to The Shul in an appearance coordinated by its spiritual leader, Rabbi Shalom B. Lipskar, and Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch in Washington, D.C. In his speech, Boehner reiterated his support for a strong bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel, and spoke of the importance of strengthening educational institutions.

All told, The Shul hosted chaplains from the Army, Navy and Air Force, who were selected for their roles in Jewish leadership, especially during tough economic times and a climate of increasing defense budget cuts.

“We try to give an opportunity for people who have not come before,” said Dresin, adding that Aleph provided scholarships for many attendees, “or whose presence we feel is very important to the event.”

Capt. Boaz Vituk, who grew up in Israel and today serves as an Army chaplain endorsed by the Aleph Institute and is stationed at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, Colo., attended the conference for the third time. He said he appreciates the inspiration the event gives him and others.

In his role as a battalion chaplain, he has been counseling soldiers in their daily lives and also servicing Jewish soldiers and area community members. Aleph empowers his work and that of others, providing chaplains and those they serve with free prayer books, Chanukah candles, Purim care packages, Passover kits and more.

“We’re like a roving Chabad House,” remarked Vituk, adding that his wife prepares Sabbath meals for soldiers and area Jews alike. “We just bring everybody together and we try to give them everything we can.”

Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, director of the Aleph Institute, noted that chaplains today find themselves responsible for providing counseling to families facing longer deployments.

“There’s greater strain on the families, greater strain on the individuals,” he said.

At the same time, more women in combat and combat-support roles have presented different challenges to military families.

“Chaplains are approached to deal with these issues,” explained Lipskar. “We need to look at the Talmud and at other classic Jewish sources for guidance on how to approach the challenges people face.”

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner addressed attendees of the conference at The Shul of Bal Harbour. (Photo: Carlos Chattah/The Shul)
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner addressed attendees of the conference at The Shul of Bal Harbour. (Photo: Carlos Chattah/The Shul)

Capt. Ephraim Travis, who hails from Far Rockaway, N.Y., and is stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, said he valued the sense of camaraderie and the opportunity to meet chaplains and lay leaders he may have only known before through e-mail. He spoke of the mentorship, guidance and training as key components to what brought him back to attend.

“It is definitely the premiere training event for us annually,” he said. “Rabbi Dresin has an amazing ability to bring in lecturers that are not just interesting, but extremely relevant for the issues at hand.”

Travis is in charge of Jewish programming at Fort Bragg, where he leads a Friday night prayer group and runs a weekly meal and assorted holiday programming. He can also be found giving seminars to soldiers on topics from marriage to financial management to suicide prevention.

“It’s quite a variety of things we do as battalion chaplains,” he said, adding that coming back to the event after having been deployed builds bonds and makes the training even more concrete.

He said he was glad to see Maj. Gen. Douglas Carver, a chaplain who retired last year, also returning to the event. A Southern Baptist chaplain who served as the 22nd Chief of Chaplains for the U.S. Army, Carver spoke to the group a few years ago during a standing-room only keynote address, and returned this year to further share his thoughts.

Another high-ranking speaker was Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Jacobs, commander of the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations center at Fort Bragg.

“It’s humbling and very inspiring to know that we have the support of the chaplain corps,” said Travis, “that our voices are being heard, and that there’s appreciation for our unique role as Jewish chaplains.”

Participants also enjoyed a Sabbath dinner with the area Jewish community, which gave them the chance to spend time with grateful area residents.

Travis is anxiously awaiting next year’s program.

“It always leaves us with that sense that we want more,” he said, “because it’s such an incredible experience, and it’s just so wonderful being together with everybody. Having to say goodbye is bittersweet.”