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Aleph Military Symposium Convenes 175 Service Members and Families

Nearly 200 Jewish service members and their families gathered in Bal Harbour, Florida at the end of February for five uplifting days of training and camaraderie during the 17th Annual Aleph Military Symposium, a pivotal event for Jews in the US Military hosted by the Aleph Institute.

“Many Jews in the military do not have the opportunity to interact with a broader community while serving on isolated bases,” says Chaplain, Major Elie Estrin, USAF, Aleph’s military personnel liaison. ”The symposium is critical in bringing the Jewish military community together, empowering them to effectively carry out their missions.”

Held from February 28 to March 3, the conference focused on the themes of readiness, resilience, and moral clarity. Among the attendees were chaplains endorsed by Aleph; international chaplains representing the militaries of Israel, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands; Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen; and their families. “The Aleph military symposium provides a unique opportunity to salute our dedicated Jewish service members and their families across the US and worldwide,” explains Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, Aleph’s CEO. “The event epitomizes our unwavering dedication to support these brave men and women and ensure they have everything they need to serve G-d while serving their country.”

The five-day conference kicked off with a barbecue on Wednesday night, and warm greetings on Thursday morning from Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, Aleph’s founder; Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, Rabbi Sanford Dresin (CH COL, USA Ret), Chaplain Endorser; and Chaplain Estrin. Over the next few days, participants delved into crucial topics such as counseling individuals with PTSD, maintaining moral clarity in wartime, and grasping the intensive Halachic duties of the IDF rabbinate in the horrific aftermath of October 7th.

Attendees were privileged to hear from the deputy Chief of Chaplains of the US Army, CH (BG) JackbStumme as well as VADM Herman Shelanski, USN. The keynote bspeaker, Major General Scott Jackson, Chief of Staff, USSOUTHCOM, captivated the crowd over a gourmet, three-course Shabbat meal, talking about the importance and impact of chaplains at every echelon of the military. Another highlight was  fireside chat with the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force, the Honorable Ms. Deborah Lee James.

Other notable presenters included Colonel Tzachi Dotan, previous Chief of Staff of the IDF Rabbinate and Officer in Charge (OIC) for fallen soldier identification and burial; and Maj, Rabbi Yehuda Rath, Chief Rabbi of Emergency Military Halacha of the IDF. Their participation emphasized the important collaboration between the US Military and IDF chaplaincy leadership.

The weekend’s celebratory spirit was elevated by several events: a retirement ceremony honoring Ch, Lt Col Michael Bram for his service; and an award presented to Ch, Capt Levy Pekar, USAF for his outstanding ministry serving the Jewish military population across all of Germany. The Jewish War Veterans (JWV) were represented by CSM Gary Ginsberg, USA Retired and JWV Vice Commander; and Maj Aaron Scheer, USAF Ret.

This year’s program also included sessions for cadets from West Point as well as the Air Force Academy, marking the first time the Air Force Academy cadets participated in the Aleph conference. “For the cadets, having the opportunity to meet so many other Jews in uniform, from all services and ranks, was invaluable,” says Chaplain, Capt Saul Rappeport, USAF. “Both hearing the stories of more senior service members, as well as simply joining together with them to celebrate their shared Jewish heritage, will have an immense positive impact in the ongoing formation of these emerging military leaders.”

Service members and their families look forward to the symposium all year—sometimes it’s the only chance to have in-person contact with fellow Jews. As Major Aaron Salter, USA put it, “Walking into the Aleph Institute felt like going to Jewish US Military Disneyland.”

Another service member added: “This week has been an infusion of strength and camaraderie that will carry me until next year.”

For the spouses and families of military members, the program provided a mix of serious and lighthearted activities that included a group panel discussion on military life, opportunities for Torah learning, and a fun paint night. Several of the military children volunteered to put together mishloach manot packages that Aleph sends to its constituents.

“The solidarity and sense of community is just amazing,” says military spouse Chaya Sara Ceitlin. “It was great to feel truly seen by people. I was surrounded by a group of women who understand me and have wonderful advice to give. It feels like coming home.”

On Sunday, Chaplain Lt Col Joey Friedman, USAF, delivered a powerful presentation on the Halachic ramifications of Israel’s wars with insightful Torah sources. His talk ended with a standing ovation and spontaneous rendition of “Acheinu,” a Hebrew song that calls for the release of fellow Jews in captivity. The unity and emotion that reverberated around the room as everyone sang was indescribable, and concluded the weekend on a poignant note.

Participants returned to their respective bases spiritually, emotionally, and professionally rejuvenated. They are now counting down the days until the next reunion.

Originally published in the Pesach 5784 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.