SURFSIDE Fla.—From the time he was considering joining the U.S. Army and continuing into his service, Sgt. Isser Rugbelow says he was positively influenced and helped by the Aleph Institute, which provides for the physical and spiritual needs of Jewish soldiers at home and abroad. Last week, Rugbelow flew in cross-country from Washington state, where he’s stationed, to Surfside, Fla., to attend the Aleph Institute’s Military Jewish Chaplain Training Course and Shabbat with Our Troops program.

More than 50 U.S. military personnel from around the nation took part in the weekend, which drew a crowd of 500 for Friday-night services and 350 for Friday-night dinner. Some community members who turned up to show their support at the events also opened their homes to the military for the Jewish Sabbath, hosting participants from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines who traveled to Florida for the program.

Catering to military chaplains and lay leaders, as well as to a wider swath of Jewish military personnel and their spouses, event attendees heard from senior military and government leaders on this year’s theme: “Being a successful (Jewish) military chaplain/lay leader in a highly diverse and multicultural environment.” There were sessions on America’s multicultural history; lessons from the Bible and Talmud on diversity; discussions of the role of chaplains and their interactions with diverse populations; and a variety of related talks. Featured speakers included the U.S. Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, and the Chief of Chaplains for the U.S. Army, Maj. Gen. Donald Rutherford.

Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott was on hand Friday and received a plaque from the Aleph Institute thanking him for his work promoting religious freedom in Florida. After Friday-night services, Gov. Scott spoke to the congregation about Aleph’s work in supporting the troops and also of his support for Israel. The governor and his wife, Ann Scott, stayed for dinner.

Sgt. Rugbelow, who received holiday materials while deployed in Afghanistan ranging from a lulav and etrog for the holiday of Sukkot to hand-baked matzah and grape juice for Passover, spoke to the crowd about his experiences with the Aleph Institute and the ways in which being connected with Aleph has allowed him to access the Jewish resources he needs while in the army. In addition to these items, the Aleph Institute prints and distributes camouflaged Bibles, prayer books and psalm books for U.S. military personnel all over the world. The organization is currently putting together 2,000 traditional gift packages full of goodies for the upcoming holiday of Purim.

As for the event itself, Sgt. Rugbelow said he was impressed by the range of chaplains from different Jewish backgrounds and experiences who were assembled for a single goal—to help Jewish men and women serving in the U.S. military—and the way the senior chaplains imparted information to the next generation of chaplains. The dedication of the chaplain families—the husbands and wives working together for a better chaplaincy—was also very moving, he said. “It’s basically a team effort.”

Rabbi Menachem Katz is director of outreach for the Aleph Institute, founded in 1981 by its director, Rabbi Shalom Ber Lipskar, at the request of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Katz noted that the organization serves some 5,000 U.S. Jewish service members and their families, as well as 4,000 Jewish inmates around the country. Aleph is also an official endorsing agency for Jewish chaplains for the Department of Defense.

Gov. Scott with Rabbi Menachem Katz and Chaplain 1st Lt. Mendy Stern (center)
Gov. Scott with Rabbi Menachem Katz and Chaplain 1st Lt. Mendy Stern (center)

Katz said he wants military personnel, Jewish chaplains, lay leaders and service members to know that the Jewish community supports their efforts and appreciates their sacrifices. “We hope that military personnel and chaplains come away with a sense of support, knowing they’re appreciated,” he said. “Aleph is happy to help give them the knowledge and tools to effectively fulfill their mission. We hope they walk away with a lot of Jewish pride.”

He also said he knew from prior experience that the training and sessions on topics that affect them in their day-to-day operations would surely help them in their work.

Meanwhile, added Katz, the conference weekend also gives the local Jewish community a chance to understand what the military personnel do to keep them safe—to give them "an appreciation for living in a free country, which is only possible because there’s a military that fights for their freedom.”

Mayor Isaac Salver of Bay Harbor Islands, who has watched the Aleph Institute expand its scope and evolve over the past decades, said that he and his wife enjoyed the event immensely. “It was inspirational not only for the community that supports Aleph, but for the officers and soldiers who participated in the event,” he said. “I was honored to be part of it as one of the host city's mayors.”

For Chaplain 1st Lt. Mendy Stern, who is stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, N.Y., the weekend was a chance to hear from prominent speakers and receive quality training on topics that impact how he does his job. It was also an opportunity to see old friends. “We live isolated. Even though we’re in Fort Hamilton, we don’t have a lot of interaction with other chaplains locally because everyone is at their post,” he said. “So the fact that we had the privilege of being with other chaplains—it’s an opportunity to catch up for tools and training.”

Starting Thursday, the event’s participants talked through some hot-button topics facing the chaplaincy today and then moved on to hear how current issues such as the financial crisis are being addressed in different parts of the military. “To hear directly from a general how to deal with these issues is invaluable,” Stern said of the topics at hand, and he also appreciated the ability to ask pertinent questions. “To have an answer at the ready, it’s tremendous.”

The program, which even included chats with future chaplains, went “above and beyond,” Stern said, adding that he will return home physically exhausted, but spiritually and mentally refreshed.

“My takeaway is that I’m not alone, and that I have a great organization behind me,” said Stern. “Aleph stands behind me. They’re not just saying it; they’re actually there. I could not have asked for a better organization standing with me when I’m in the army.”