Military chaplains gather to answer call of duty
It’s not easy being an observant Jew in the military sometimes, especially under extreme circumstances. What do you do, for example, if there’s no kosher pot that can be used for cooking?
Rabbi Avrohom Teichman of certifying agency Kehillah Kosher offered an answer to a collection of chaplains and community members on May 14 during a gathering sponsored by Jewish Friends of the American Armed Forces (JFAAF): Any pot can be used as long as no one has cooked treif in it during the previous 24 hours.
“There are certain circumstances when you’re stuck that you can follow minority opinion,” he said. “[When you’re in the military], it’s considered a pressing circumstance, and not the normal halachic circumstance.”
Twelve Orthodox chaplains in the United States Army, National Guard, Marines and Navy gathered May 13-17 at Beth Jacob Congregation in Pico-Robertson to meet one another, undergo training, and interact with the community to show who they are and what they do.
“The community here in Los Angeles came out, showed their appreciation and made relationships with the chaplains. They saw that these chaplains are a light unto the nations in the U.S. military,” said Rabbi David Becker, who started JFAAF and serves as its director.
The chaplains at the event, all ordained rabbis, serve more than 21,000 Jewish members of the military, offering spiritual and emotional guidance as well as helping celebrate Shabbat and other holidays.
According to Becker, chaplains must have a master’s of divinity or an equivalent degree, along with smichah (rabbinic ordination). Then they go through tests and interviews administered by a board of chaplains. He helps candidates by recruiting and training them with supplies provided by Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim.
At the local series of events, the chaplains sat in on shiurim (classes) detailing how they could fulfill their rabbinic duties, prayed together, and ate meals with one another in homes, restaurants and synagogues across the area.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians gave a class called “Safeguarding Our Relations With Chaplains of Other Faiths.” The chaplains also attended a presentation on suicide prevention. Becker said during this class, they learned “how to recognize the symptoms and the telltale signs to be able to help, even if it means having to [send the person to] visit the base’s medical clinic.”
During a Friday night dinner at LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel, Army Reserve Maj. Elan Carr (a former California Congressional candidate) spoke about his experience attending Chanukah services at Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palace in Iraq, while Lapin gave a speech related to Shavuot.
Rabbi Aaron Kleinman, a chaplain and Navy lieutenant stationed in San Diego, said seeing his peers gave him “moral support” and also taught him “how to deal with current, pressing halachic issues.”
Rabbi Kevin Bemel, a Navy chaplain serving in Ventura County, never had the chance to interact with Jewish chaplains in other branches of the military until the JFAAF gathering took place.
“Meeting them and learning about the situations they face is very useful,” he said.
For his part, Bemel said he tries to be of assistance to the handful of Jewish sailors and Marines on his base by holding Chanukah parties, Rosh Hashanah services and large Passover seders. “I try to mark Jewish holidays with some kind of event,” he said.
On a day-to-day basis, Bemel’s duties include helping sailors and Marines — Jewish or not — deal with personal and career challenges.
“They could be involved in some sort of disciplinary issue, or they may be looking for some emotional or spiritual support,” he said. “On my base, I take care of everybody.”
Rabbi Dovid Egert, a lieutenant in the Air Force, said as a chaplain, he’s there for his airmen when they need to talk about issues they’re going through.
“They don’t want to have to go to their first commanders and say they’re having problems,” he said. “They need a chaplain who they can feel comfortable talking to and who will make them feel better.”
Now, if he ever needs someone to ask for assistance with his position, he can lean upon his fellow chaplains.
“I know whom to call,” he said. “I am better affiliated to help people out now.”