August 20, 2019

Training through Torah: An Orthodox rabbi and Navy lieutenant offers teaching, comfort to Marines

Sitting at the front of a small room inside a nondescript building at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Navy Lt. Aaron Kleinman was dressed in a uniform rarely seen on these grounds: On top of his gray suit, dress shirt and tie, Kleinman’s head was covered by a kippah and his shoulders, torso and back were draped with a large, dark green and olive-colored military-style tallit.

Kleinman was leading a small explanatory prayer service on Sept. 25, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, part of a larger High Holy Days program for the camp’s Jewish Marines. It was the first-ever High Holy Day program of its kind at this base, where nearly 40,000 service members work and live.

Kleinman serves as an Orthodox rabbi and chaplain in addition to his Navy rank, and on this day spoke of forgiveness by describing an experience involving his 9-year-old son, Mati, the eldest of his three children. 

Mati, Kleinman told the group, has a habit that can make his father lose his cool. One year, at synagogue on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah, Kleinman said Mati approached him somewhat awkwardly and said, “I’m sorry. I’m really trying not to, but sometimes it’s hard.”

As Kleinman spoke to the group, his emotions at the memory of his son’s earnest words were evident. His congregation at this small breakout service included a female Marine, a former Navy pilot and his wife, a chaplain-in-training and his girlfriend, plus a young Jewish man who’d come as a guest from Los Angeles. Kleinman told the group: “God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He expects us to look at ourselves honestly and say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m really trying not to, but sometimes it’s hard.’ ”

That, Kleinman said with moist eyes, is what the High Holy Days are all about. We want to be better, or at least “want to want to be better.” But, he admitted, it’s often hard and we need help. It’s a message that can resonate with anyone during the High Holy Days, but maybe it strikes a particular chord for Jews in the military “who want a connection” in the midst of an environment that can be “spiritually corrosive,” as Kleinman wrote later in an email. “It is easy to feel tremendous distance from God [in the military],” he wrote.

Using Torah to teach leadership

Kleinman is one of only nine Jewish chaplains among the Navy’s close to 800 active-duty clergy. He is also an expert marksman and former naval aviator, having served 14 years on active duty (including four years studying at the Naval Academy) before joining the reserves, then re-enlisting as clergy. As a result, Kleinman is just as fluent in the language of his fellow soldiers as that of Torah.

An avid reader of Pirkei Avot, or “Ethics of Our Fathers,” the Jewish compendium of ethical teachings from the sages, Kleinman, during a June tour of the base, referenced a quote, attributed to Hillel, that helps him explain why he felt drawn to chaplaincy: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”

“In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be that leader,” Kleinman said. “I got into this because there was a need, and no one else was stepping in.”

Lt. Eric Berman studies Torah with Lt. Aaron Kleinman, a rabbi, who is currently serving as a chaplain at Camp Pendleton.

Jews in the military are, in Kleinman’s words, a “low density, high demand” faith group. There aren’t tons of them (it is estimated that fewer than 5,000 are currently on active duty, of which 2,000 serve in the Navy) and they’re spread out across the globe, wherever America’s armed forces are stationed.

“You’re talking all the major rivers, lakes and waterways in the continental U.S., all up and down the East and West Coast,” Kleinman said, listing the vast territory protected by America’s sailors and Marines. “Hawaii, Okinawa, the Mediterranean — we now have a presence in Australia, Europe. That’s a lot of area for nine Jewish chaplains to cover.” Kleinman’s job includes the constant possibility of relocation — he goes wherever there is a need.

And, many servicemen and women could use a rabbi to lean on, particularly one like Kleinman, who has seen combat and understands the physical and mental demands of military life.

On an earlier visit to Pendleton on a scorching summer day, Kleinman’s routine schedule seemed anything but routine to a civilian. 

He socialized with Marines in the gym and those training in the Corps’ martial arts program, then delivered the benediction at a change-of-command ceremony and observed a combat medical evacuation team’s training mission at a site built to resemble a typical Middle Eastern desert village dotted with light-brown two-story structures, mirroring what an actual combat zone might be like.

Kleinman was 17 when he entered the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1991. He served as a Navy pilot in both Iraq and Afghanistan and speaks with the authority and confidence of a fighter who has trained for and experienced combat.

The tone of his rabbinic teaching, as a consequence, sounds very different from that of a typical community rabbi. He’s more deliberate, perhaps.

“If you strive for the good of the assembly, you should do so for the sake of heaven,” he said, sharing with a lunchtime Torah study group in June what he calls “Kleinman’s version” of an excerpt from “Pirkei Avot.”

“Because if you’re expecting gratitude or thanks, you’re going to be sorely disappointed,” Kleinman said.

He says his combat days are behind him. These days, his work is to help the men and women at Pendleton — both Jews and non-Jews, alike — with their personal, emotional, familial and theological issues, all of which continually get tested by the demands of the life of a Marine.

From phonebooks to the Naval Academy

Drinking an iced coffee outside a Dunkin’ Donuts at the base, Kleinman tried to explain why he felt compelled as a teenager to pursue the less-traveled path of enrolling at the United States Naval Academy.

He grew up just a few miles from Virginia’s Naval Station Norfolk, a massive base a few hours south of Washington, D.C. His childhood was a mix of military ethos in a Jewish home where, as he put it, the expectation was, “The dumb ones became lawyers [and] the smart ones became doctors.”

His stepfather, who was in the Navy, had worked side jobs to help bring in extra money for the family. One of those jobs, Kleinman recalled, was delivering phonebooks. One day, Kleinman tagged along with his stepdad and three Navy buddies who were helping three women make their deliveries across Virginia Beach.

As Kleinman remembers that day, the women were moving slowly while they tried to figure out how and where to deliver the books. So his stepdad and the three sailors intervened, reading through the distribution list and, in 20 minutes, delivering a semi-trailer truck’s worth of phone books. 

“That kind of motivation, that kind of take-charge attitude, that kind of, ‘let’s get the job done and cut through the nonsense,’ was highly appealing to me,” Kleinman said.

As he neared high school graduation, and as his friends were looking at schools like the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, Kleinman instead applied to and was accepted by the Naval Academy.

At that time he was not a kippah-wearing Orthodox Jew, as he is now, but Kleinman said his fellow sailors in the Navy knew he was Jewish.

And in the military, what happens when people know you are a Jew?

“Mazel tov, you’re a rabbi!” Kleinman said. “You represent Judaism, and you represent God, no matter how much or little you know.”

Being the “official expert on all things Jewish,” as the chaplain described his academic and active-duty experience, may not have been what put “rabbi” onto his list of possible post-combat careers — but it didn’t bother him, either. 

“I didn’t have the language of kiddush ha Shem [sanctifying God’s name] at the time,” Kleinman said, discussing his early days with the Navy, “but I understood very quickly that I represented Judaism as a whole to basically everybody who saw me.”

In 2000, Kleinman served aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, piloting an E-2C Hawkeye—an $80-million aircraft that provides crucial communications and surveillance support against threats on the ground and in the air within enemy territory. He was deployed to help enforce “Operation Southern Watch,” which created a no-fly zone over the skies of southern Iraq to buffer Kuwait’s northern border and to protect Iraqi Shiites from Saddam Hussein, the country’s former Sunni dictator.

In 2000, Kleinman served aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, piloting an E-2C Hawkeye (Below). ) Photos from Wikipedia

Two years later, in 2002, Kleinman shipped out on the USS John F. Kennedy, flying more than 60 missions, again on an E-2C Hawkeye—this time over Afghanistan as part of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” in which U.S. and coalition forces attempted to rout Al Qaeda and the Taliban following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Kleinman would not elaborate on the substance of his missions, but he did say, when asked, that he had some “close calls” piloting the Hawkeye. 

“There’s not a carrier aviator who has not had close calls,” Kleinman said. “It’s a dangerous job. No one goes through flight school without losing friends.”