18 Feb 22
From: LT Troy C. Sundermeyer, USN
To: Commanding Officer, USS ESSEX (LHD 2)
Subj: AFTER ACTION SUMMARY ALEPH INSTITUTE’S 15TH ANNUAL MILITARY TRAINING COURSE
Ref: Letter of Instruction
- The Aleph Institute is the primary Religious Organization (RO) which endorses Orthodox Jewish Military Chaplains. The Aleph Institute held its Jewish Chaplain and Lay Leader Training Course and Symposium from Wednesday, 09 February 2022 through Monday, 14 February 2022 at The Shul/The Aleph Institute in Surfside, Florida. The Letter of Instruction (LOI) provides an overview of the training courses provided as well as an invitation for military chaplains, Jewish and non-Jewish, and lay leaders.
- SgtMaj Lemus, Combat Logistics Battalion 7 Sergeant Major, was invited to participate in a panel discussion on day one of the training. As his chaplain, he and I began to discuss why this training event and his involvement in the panel would be a great personal, professional, and faith-encouraging opportunity. Over the course of several conversations he asked if I would be willing to attend the training with him. We discussed the value it would also be to me personally, professionally, and with respect to my personal faith. SgtMaj Lemus and I approached our Commanding Officer and requested to attend the training together. For SgtMaj, the training would support his current and future efforts as a Jewish Religious Lay Leader and his personal faith journey. For me, the training would be Professional Military Education (PME) and would further enhance my ability to provide collaborative ministry support with my Jewish colleagues and facilitation of ministry with Jewish Marines, Sailors, and Coastguardsmen with whom I serve. Our Commanding Officer concurred that this training would be value added to each of our lives and careers and supported each of us attending the training.
- This training was an excellent opportunity for personal and professional growth. The following is a summary of the reasons for which I strongly recommend both Jewish (Orthodox or Reformed) and non-Jewish chaplains attend.
- Collaborative support with our minority faith group chaplains. The primary lens, or paradigm, through which the majority of chaplains approach collaborative ministry is their own experience and faith background. While this is not necessarily a negative or surprise, it does often unnecessarily bias chaplains from providing well facilitated collaborative ministry. Case in point, during the training it was mentioned that Orthodox Jewish chaplains have specific requirements to faithfully observe Torah obligations during Sabbath. In support of these, it would be helpful for Religious Ministry Teams (RMTs) to establish Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that enable both the Jewish chaplains and Lay Leaders to maintain these observances while providing or facilitating their Sabbath services. While this might appear as a minor or insignificant issue for a non-Jewish chaplain, it may create a significant burden for the Jewish chaplain or Lay Leader in the midst of their services. Many base chapels have SOPs for setting up and/or preparing for the various faith group’s services; however, these seldom reflect the specific needs of the Orthodox Jewish faith. Being able to listen directly to our Jewish chaplains across all military branches further enabled my awareness of and ability to provide collaborative support with our Jewish chaplains and Lay Leader.
- Intentionally being the minority faith group. The significance of being the ‘other’ in the midst of a military chaplain context cannot be over emphasized. In a room of approximately 55 persons, 45 of which were in uniform, only three were from the Christian faith. Of these three, one was present as an extension of his official position as the Chaplain Representative with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), Colonel Archer. A second was a Reserve Army Christian chaplain whose mother is Jewish and has personal connections with the Jewish faith. The third was me. In most military chaplain trainings the Rabbi or Imam is a one of one. It was meaningful to be present with fellow military chaplains while also being in the minority as this is the daily reality for our minority faith group chaplains. This is also the daily reality for our minority faith group service members. Until one is in a context where they are the minority, it is difficult to empathize with the challenges and struggles of those who experience this on a regular basis.
- Fellowship with our Jewish Chaplains and Lay Leaders. Table fellowship is a meaningful way to grow relationships between individuals or groups who have varying perspectives concerning foundational beliefs. This is especially true concerning religious beliefs and faith groups. In many of the world’s faith groups, table fellowship is a highly valued component of one’s faith. Several faith groups also emphasize the importance of inviting the stranger into one’s protection and care which is often expressed through a shared meal. Attending a Shabbat dinner is an expression of the Jewish faith that all faith group chaplains should experience at some point in their careers. Attending the Shabbat dinner is more than simply attending a dinner fellowship, it is being invited into the living expressions of the Jewish faith. Not only does one experience the elements of Shabbat, but also the expression and deepening of relationship with God, family/neighbor, and self.
- A focus on what unites us versus what separates us. Military chaplaincy is pluralistic ministry. Each faith group chaplain chooses to serve in a pluralistic context with fellow chaplains from varying faith backgrounds. It is important that each chaplain reflect upon and be intentional about choosing the paradigm through which he/she approaches ministry within this pluralistic context. Focusing on the paradigm of what unites us vastly increases the possibility and opportunity for successful and engaging RMTs; conversely, focusing on the paradigm of what separates us often creates an us/them mentality within the RMTs and undermines collaborative efforts within pluralistic ministry.
- Attending the Aleph Institute’s Military Training Course provided a first-hand opportunity to focus on what unites military chaplains of differing faith groups. During the training I had two opportunities to speak briefly with Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar, founder of the Aleph Institute and The Shul of Bal Harbour where the training took place. His gracious and humble spirit were evident in our interactions as he welcomed me into this space. During one of these conversations, he shared his hope that the Jewish and Christian chaplains would be able to focus on what unites us as we serve in a cultural context which grows ever more secular and void of any recognition or worship of God. I acknowledge that chaplains, Lay Leaders, and service members of varying faith backgrounds have several, if not many, foundational beliefs with which they differ and disagree. By choosing to focus on areas of agreement, such as the value of human life reflected in the Constitution of the United States of America, we increase the likelihood of successful and engaging religious ministry.
- Listening with the intention to hear the voice of our Orthodox Jewish chaplain and Lay Leaders. Attending this training provided me with an opportunity to step into an environment where our Jewish chaplains and Lay Leaders shared concerning relevant topics to all military personnel, especially chaplains, and how these influence the heart and life of our Jewish personnel. The topics included resiliency, moral injury, Torah (as the foundation of Jewish faith), the free personal and communal expression of faith, and more. Attending the trainings, interacting in discussion, and listening to conversations concerning these topics provided me with a unique perspective that I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to both hear and internalize. By being present, I was challenged and encouraged in my own thoughts and conclusions concerning these topics which every chaplain, Lay Leader, and/or service member is confronted on a daily basis. If we only surround ourselves with the same voice and the same paradigm, then we will continue with our present assumptions, biases, and expectations. However, when we are intentional about reading, having conversations with, or attending trainings such as this weekend, then we are able to reflect upon and reassess our conclusions as we journey through life with and serve alongside those with varying or contrasting beliefs.
- Hearing story. One of the most meaningful and valuable aspects of relational identity is hearing the story of another. This training provided just such an opportunity. It was an incredible honor to hear the historical, faith, family, and personal stories of my fellow Jewish chaplains and Lay Leaders from within a safe and faith-affirming context. I was invited in as the stranger and welcomed to sit at the table with while story was taught, lived, and shared.
Summary: Being a witness to the living expression of devotion to God through a focus on Sabbath; the removal of external distractions in order to focus on one’s relationship with God, family, neighbor, stranger (my welcome into this time of worship), and self; was uplifting and created an increased desire with me for seeking and knowing God. Hearing the prayers, readings, and teachings from the Torah in Hebrew, while I was following along in English, was inspiring.
It was valuable for me to attend and participate in the training, prayers, services, and table fellowship as one invited in from the ‘outside’. I have a better understanding of and appreciation for serving with our Orthodox Jewish chaplains and Lay Leaders who serve in our armed forces.
TROY C. SUNDERMEYER
LT, CHC, USN