An ultra-Orthodox organization will start endorsing chaplains for the United States military, ending the 88-year-long monopoly on endorsements held by the multi-denominational body that had vetted all previous candidates.
The Aleph Institute, an organization linked to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement previously known for helping Jewish prisoners, was approved last month by the Department of Defense to endorse chaplains. Endorsing agencies provide a required seal of approval for any religious leader who wants to join one of the three branches of the military. The Miami-based Aleph Institute will join the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council, which, since 1918, has been the only body endorsing Jewish chaplains. The chaplains council is run by the Jewish Community Center Association and brings together the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements to vet candidates.
The approval of a Chabad-Lubavitch body is particularly notable because Chabad rabbis — known for their eagerness in reaching out to unaffiliated Jews — are currently not able to become chaplains because of a military regulation banning beards. The new body will endorse rabbis from other corners of the Orthodox world, but it is also likely to lead any efforts to overturn the military’s prohibition on chaplains having beards. In the past, Orthodox rabbis have quietly complained that the Jewish Chaplains Council did not seem interested in working to change the rule. The chaplains council also has been under pressure because of a general shortage of Jewish chaplains in the military.
The approval of the Aleph Institute comes shortly after the retirement of the rabbi who ran the Jewish Chaplains Council for the last 24 years. The council has chosen a replacement, according to an executive at the JCC Association, and an announcement of the decision is expected within two weeks.
The new executive director of the Aleph Institute’s Military Programs, Rabbi Sanford Dresin, said he wants to work in cooperation with the chaplains council. But — pointing to the low number of rabbinic chaplains — he questioned the chaplains council’s past work.
“The chaplains council is a captive of the JCC Association,” Dresin told the Forward. “It may not be the highest priority of the JCCs.”
Currently only 29 of the 2,850 active-duty chaplains in the military are rabbis, and chaplain recruiters have specifically tried to raise the numbers. Of the 29, already half come from the Orthodox world. The Reform movement in particular has struggled to attract new chaplains, largely because the salary offered by the military is so much less than that offered by most Reform congregations. Recently the Reform movement’s rabbinical union moved to allow cantors to become chaplains.
The Aleph Institute only plans to endorse Orthodox rabbis, according to Dresin. Though Dresin is not affiliated with Chabad, he has a daughter who lives in the Chabad community in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. A pulpit rabbi at a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Delaware, Dresin said he likes the “enthusiasm” of the Chabad movement.
Dresin also said he would be targeting more right-wing Orthodox and Hasidic yeshivas, and he already has begun looking at Israeli yeshivas that have American students.
“We feel we can reach out to many rabbinical schools and people in the Orthodox community that may not have been touched by the Jewish Welfare Board,” Dresin said.
The Orthodox rabbi who sits on the Jewish Chaplains Council, Rabbi Jacob Greenberg, said his group has been open to rabbis of all stripes, but, he added, “if they think they can do a better job, let them come in and try.”
The Aleph Institute already has endorsed its first chaplain for the navy: a rabbi in his early 40s who recently received his ordination from Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles after an earlier career in business. Dresin said that the candidate had spoken earlier with the chaplains council but “there had been no follow-through.”
One lingering question for the more religiously observant rabbis whom Dresin is seeking out is how they will survive in the military, where chaplains have to deal with Jews from all backgrounds as well as with non-Jews — and all outside the comfortable surrounding of an established Jewish community. Dresin, who was an active-duty chaplain for 26 years and had stints in Korea and Vietnam, said he will be seeking candidates who would be “willing to step out of the box — without the support system of his particular Jewish ghetto.”