Shabbat services are resuming at a major U.S. Army base after they were suspended due to the firing of its longtime volunteer Jewish service leader, organizers say.
Shabbat services at Fort Campbell had been formally suspended after the head chaplains on the base fired longtime leader Jeannette Mize in February. But a source on the base says that ad-hoc services were still conducted, and the new leader was formally approved by the base earlier this month and began leading services last Friday.
“There were services last Shabbat, and we have every expectation that there will be services every Friday night with this new lay leader,” said Rabbi Irving Elson, the director of the Jewish Welfare Board, the organization that certifies Jewish worship leaders for the armed forces.
Elson said that there appeared to be a formal gap in Shabbat services between the end of March and May 10, but argued that such a gap, while regrettable, was because the base’s chaplains “were not simply rushing around to fill in [the position], they were finding the right person.”
“The gold standard is to have a Shabbat service every Shabbat everywhere,” he added. “The reality is that there are hundreds of bases around the world that don’t have a Shabbat service every Shabbat. I don’t want to minimize this, but I do want to focus on: today, the needs of the Jewish soldiers have been met.”
The Army has initiated a formal investigation into whether Mize’s firing violated regulations, and whether the ensuing lack of Shabbat services without an immediate replacement constituted discrimination against Jewish soldiers.
Whether Shabbat services had in fact been occurring prior to this past Friday was a point of contention: The base’s website says that Jewish worship is “temporarily suspended,” and the base’s spokesman told the Forward on Tuesday that he could not answer any questions, including whether services had in fact resumed, due to the ongoing investigation.
Mize’s lawyer, Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told the Forward that it made no sense for the base not to proclaim that services had resumed, given the negative coverage it had received for firing Mize.
“If they’re saying that services are going uninterrupted, our response would be, that is f—-ing b———-,” Weinstein said. He pointed out the base spokesman had issued a statement on April 28 that Jewish soldiers could turn to “more than 70 Army chaplains” on the base — but not mentioning a Jewish volunteer leader (none of the base’s chaplains are rabbis). The MRFF has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information on all Jewish services that may have been conducted this year.
Elson said he didn’t know why a transition to a new leader didn’t happen immediately after Mize’s firing, but claimed that his organization had been working with the base’s leadership to transition to a new leader since last December after receiving complaints about low attendance at Jewish events.
“Before that, we had talked with the chaplains about working with Mrs. Mize about adapting the program, changing the program….It’s an evolving Jewish community, with 18- to 24-year-olds,” Elson said. “They’re used to something different.”
One Jewish person on the base, who asked not to be named due to Army regulations against speaking to the press, appreciated the new leader, telling the Forward that the vibe was now more welcoming.
“It’s improved to the positive,” the person said. “In fact, more people are showing up.”
The base had originally said that they would publicly announce the new leader’s name on the holiday of Shavuot last week, but now says that the person will not be publicly named until the investigation has been concluded. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) wrote a formal letter to the base’s commander last week asking that Mize be reinstated until the probe is complete. A spokesperson for Zeldin told the Forward on Thursday that they had not received a response.
Mize, who is 69 and led services since 1999, claims that the base’s top chaplains, who arrived in 2016, were “fundamentalist Christians” who had isolated her from important meetings and refused to distribute publicity materials for Jewish events before firing her, citing the low attendance.
“They strangled Jewish worship,” she told the Forward on Wednesday. “They strangled it by totally reducing my exposure and my communication.”
But others are supporting the chaplains.
The investigation and the ensuring coverage is “ruining the reputations of really good chaplains and really good people who really want to improve the community and have not done anything wrong,” the Jewish source on the base said.
The JWB is also backing the chaplains under investigation.
“We’ve got nothing but the greatest support from the chaplains, and particularly the two chaplains that are at the center of this,” Elson said. “They’re truly interested in the welfare of their soldiers and will do what needs to be done….We’re very aware and we have our antennas up for any act of anti-Semitism in the military. But for everything we’ve seen and heard in the military, and knowing very very very well the chaplains involved, we simply do not think this is simply one of those cases.”
Mize has claimed that during her firing, one of the chaplains who complained about low attendance told her, “it might help to have a pretty female talking to the Jewish soldiers.”
“I guess they found another pretty woman,” Mize said on Wednesday.
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.