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Interview with Aleph’s Endorser, CH (COL) Sanford L. Dresin, USA Ret. 

Jewish American Warrior (JAW): Tell us a little about your background.

Rabbi Sanford Dresin (RSD): I grew up in Brooklyn. My father, Nathan Dresin, of blessed memory, attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, and I was fortunate to follow in his footsteps. He was a leader in the Young Israel movement and I therefore grew up both in the world of Torah Vodaath and Young Israel. Following graduation, I went on to Yeshiva University and also spent much time in the Chassidic world, where my father was one of the foremost builders of Mikvas in the 1950s and 60s.


JAW: Why did you decide to become an Army chaplain?

RSD: Strangely enough, given the old quip: “what kind of job is a rabbi for a nice Jewish boy?!”, I contemplated becoming a congregational rabbi. I was friendly with a group of young rabbis who had served as military chaplains for a brief time and their advice to me was that service as a chaplain would provide me with many of the necessary skills required of a pulpit rabbi, such as preaching, teaching, counseling and administration. Following my initial two year obligation, I chose to become a career Regular Army Chaplain. Parenthetically, I feel that becoming a career Army Chaplain was the right choice for me; and were I twenty-five years younger I would gladly do it all over again. Few people feel that way about a previous career.


JAW: 26 years Active Duty – how many times were you deployed?

RSD: I served in Vietnam for a little over a year as an Assistant Corps Chaplain. Working in a three star command, even as a junior chaplain, gave me access to air transportation, both helicopter and fixed wing. That permitted me to visit with Jewish troops throughout our area of operation; including Cambodia, which at that time was classified. I also served in Korea as the Division Chaplain for the 2nd Infantry Division which at the time was the Army’s largest Division, made up of over 17,500 troops, including 2,500 Korean troops, as well as thirty chaplains. In Germany, I served as the Staff Chaplain for The 7th MedCom with over 60 chaplains spread out in over one hundred hospitals and clinics all over Europe. Unofficially, in Germany I was also the Gemeinde Rabbiner for the Heidelberg Jewish Congregation, which at that time did not have a rabbi of its own.

JAW: Tell us of some of the most interesting experiences you’ve had in your military career.

RSD: One of my most interesting experiences occurred very close to home when for my first assignment in the Army, I was assigned to The 6th Armored Cavalry at Fort Meade, MD as a Squadron Chaplain. It was the 6th Cavalry, along with the 82nd Airborne, that occupied Washington DC following the assassination of Dr. King and the civil disturbances that ensued. Imagine riding into DC along the Baltimore Washington Pkwy. in an Armored Personnel Carrier while the city appeared to be on fire; and passing the White House surrounded by troops manning 50 caliber machine guns… Decades later, in Germany, I was heavily involved in the planning of medical coverage for the initial stages of the Gulf War. The initial military models indicated that we would suffer up to 20,000 casualties in the early stages of the war. Thank G-d the casualty models were inaccurate to say the least. While assigned to the Pentagon as The Chief of Personnel Actions, Office of The Chief of Chaplains, I was privileged to serve on the team that defended the Army Chaplaincy’s constitutionality. I was also the Chaplain Branch implementation officer for the Defense Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) which made major changes to Title 10 of the US Code, which covered officer personnel. I was also present in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down. My son was one of the first to take a hammer to the wall, collecting pieces marked with graffiti.


JAW: What led you to becoming an Endorser?

RSD: I enjoyed being a military chaplain and congregational rabbi and found it most meaningful. Following my retirement from the Army, I served for over fifteen years as a pulpit rabbi in Wilmington DE, where I retired for the second time. When Rabbi Sholom Lipskar offered me the opportunity twelve years ago to become Aleph’s Endorser I gladly accepted. I grew up in the Army, and Aleph gave me the opportunity to return home, so to speak.


JAW: As an Endorser, what are your responsibilities?

RSD: I am perceived by many as the face of Aleph’s military program. As such I am guided by two principles: that my actions and those of my chaplains must always serve as a Kiddush Hashem and never G-d forbid cause a Chillul Hashem. Secondly, success in the Chaplaincy, as in life, is not marked by winning battles, but by acquiring friends. Third, to acknowledge that, as our Sages say, “There is wisdom among the nations” and apply it to the dictum found in Pirkei Avot, “Who is wise, he who learns from all mankind.”


JAW: Do you have a particular vision for Jewish chaplains and Lay Leaders you’d like to share?

RSD: My vision for both chaplains and lay leaders is that of a tightrope walker, keeping one’s balance between being a soldier and a religious functionary. Whether an Orthodox Rabbi or lay leader, be authentic and consistent. If you do so you will enjoy the respect of your colleagues. Regarding liberal Jewish congregants, of which you will have many, you must be willing and able to serve all of them without compromising your own brand of Judaism. The key is to establish a rapport and friendship with each of them and then credibility and trust will follow.


JAW: Considering your 40+ year involvement with the military, any advice for Jews in uniform?

RSD: First and foremost it’s not only important to be good, you must also look good. Also, as mentioned earlier, a soldier must be consistent and authentic in their religious observance and seek guidance from their chaplains as to their Free Exercise Rights.


JAW: What changes would you like to see implemented that would help Jews in the military have greater access to their free exercise of religion?

RSD: I would enjoin all the service schools, not only the chaplain schools, to have a block of instruction on Free Exercise and Religious Liberty as set forth in Department of Defense Instruction {DODI} 1304.28 5.2. I would also like to stress in no uncertain terms that every chaplain must be a serious advocate for the religious freedom of service members in their command.


Originally published in the Tishrei 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.