More than 100 Jewish military service members and their families attended the 16th Annual Military Conference and Shabbaton hosted by the Aleph Institute in Bal Harbour, Florida. This year’s symposium, held from February 22-26, 2023, explored elements of professional and communal relationships within military ministry and provided the opportunity for professional development, inspiration, and camaraderie.
Clerical participants included over two dozen chaplains endorsed by the Aleph Institute, the Chiefs of Chaplains of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) chaplain, and international military chaplains representing Israel, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. Dozens of non-clerical Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen attended as well, creating the synergy needed to provide the most valuable information and training from various vantages.
“It’s incredible what Aleph is doing. Not only did I gain a lot this weekend, but I enjoyed seeing other service members benefit from the experience as well,” said FN Yaakov Cruz, Coast Guard. “I really appreciated how they went out of their way to bring lower ranking enlisted to the symposium. By showing the lower ranking enlisted Jews that they have a support system, it strengthens the enlisted members that are the future of Jewish people in the military.”
The symposium fired up on Wednesday evening with a casual-dress outdoor barbecue, where guests were able to mingle and connect without the barriers of ranks and uniform. On Thursday morning, after prayers and breakfast, participants were welcomed by Aleph’s founder, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar; Executive Director Rabbi Aaron Lipskar; Chaplain Endorser Rabbi Sanford Dresin (CH COL, USA Ret); and Chaplain, Major Rabbi Elie Estrin, Aleph’s Military Personnel Liaison.
“Many Jews in the military do not have the opportunity to interact with a broader community while serving on isolated bases,” says Rabbi Estrin. “The goal of this weekend was to provide each participant with the unique opportunity to explore the challenges and triumphs of military life alongside fellow Jews in uniform. Our intent is that each participant is returning to their home station feeling spiritually, emotionally, and professionally rejuvenated.”
The first day of the conference addressed relevant topics such as presenting the concept of kosher to government entities, led by Rabbi Eli Eleff of the OU, and the importance of relationships in counseling victims of PTSD and traumatic brain injury, by renowned expert COL Dr. Jeff Yarvis. Chaplains and Jewish lay leaders from all branches and ranks received mentorship from senior officers and discussed best practices for military life, particularly regarding Jewish observance.
A highlight for many was the presentation by the IDF Chief Rabbinate, including Brigadier General Rabbi Eyal Karim, Chief Rabbi of the IDF, and Lt Col Rabbi Yedidya Atlas, Chief of IDF Rabbinate Special Projects. They discussed the role of Jewish chaplains in the military and the unique Jewish perspective of leadership, while highlighting the special relationship between the US and Israel, particularly noting the relationship that Aleph Institute formed this year in support of the religious needs of IDF soldiers on US installations.
Other speakers included Farley Weiss, Esq., Chairman of the Israel Heritage Foundation (IHF) and former president of the National Council of Young Israel, who spoke about relationships and the Jewish people; CH (COL) Shmuel Felzenberg, who discussed balancing the roles of rabbi, officer, and supervisory chaplain; and CH (COL) Ari Soussan, who addressed unique aspects of his work as fellow and professor of ethics at the National Defense University, and Col Nelson Mellitz, National Commander of the Jewish War Veterans.
Thursday evening’s dinner was capped off with a fascinating lecture on recent legal cases dealing with religious freedom, given by Mr. Eric Baxter, Esq., Vice President and Senior Counsel of The Becket Fund.
“Spending five days with this diverse coalition of Jewish men and women was a profound reminder of the importance of Aleph’s mission,” says Rabbi Aaron Lipskar. “It bolstered our ongoing commitment to caring for the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of those in service, so that they are fully equipped to fulfill the highest demands of duty.”
Uplifting prayer services were followed by a gourmet meal on Friday night and Shabbat day. Over the traditional Shabbat foods such as wine and challah, guests were privileged to hear from an array of inspiring and motivational speakers, including Dr. Alexander Kott, Chief Scientist of the US Army Research Labs, CH (COL) Menachem Sebbag, the Chief Jewish Chaplain of the Netherlands Armed Forces, and Rear Admiral Melissa Bert, Chief Counsel of the United States Coast Guard.
On Sunday, after focused sessions for each individual branch, participants’ Halachic questions were fielded by the IDF’s Director of Halacha, Lt Col Rabbi Avihud Schwartz, alongside Aleph’s own halachic decisor, Rabbi Dov Schochet. Fascinating discussions ensued, granting insight into the differences between a Jewish military and Jews within a secular military.
In the penultimate session, guests had the opportunity to share insights they gained over the weekend and strategies to implement them. “The learning, the speakers, and the camaraderie—everything came together beautifully and really blew me away,” says Chaplain, Major Dan Millner, TX ANG. “It was really great to meet people I’d previously only spoken to on the phone or texted. To actually come and see them in person was truly a wonderful experience.
This article was originally published on COLLIVE in February 2023.