Ch Major Elie Estrin, USAFR
I consider myself to be the luckiest chaplain in the DoD. Although I am an Air Force Reservist, I practically live and breathe purple – and here’s why: Every chaplain works within their chain of command, as do I, but because of my responsibility as executive assistant to our Endorser, I am occasionally called to help out somewhere else within the broader DoD, and not just at MacDill Air Force Base, where I am attached.
In this particular case, the service member was a Marine. His parents were traditional Israelis, and he grew up with the basics of Judaism. He’d graduated boot camp, and was now on his first tour, at a geographically detached unit located on an Army base.
PFC A. sent me a message, asking if I could assist him to get permission to go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. At first glance, it looked like it would be easy—the base had a Jewish lay leader, and there is a Chabad House a few miles off post. I instructed him in the vagaries of the religious accommodation request, introduced him to the lay leader and rabbi, and thought that we were done.
A day or two after Rosh Hashanah, I checked in with him. “How are things?” Staying positive, he made a happy comment, but told me that he’d not been given permission to leave for Rosh Hashanah, and was feeling very apprehensive about Yom Kippur. Frustration welled up inside of me, as I began asking him about his communication with his superiors. “Well, my NCO told me that his girlfriend is Jewish but she doesn’t keep those holidays, so he didn’t think I needed to either.” With a theological argument of that caliber, I knew we were in for a struggle.
I contacted our senior Jewish chaplain and asked him for backup. He called the Marine’s (non-Jewish) chaplain, but was given a blasé response. In fact, when I called the Marine for an update a few days later, things had progressed… sideways. “I’ve been given the day off…” he began, “But I’m confined to barracks.” That didn’t sound like religious freedom to me; it sounded a bit more like reprisal.
Time for the big guns. I called my (civilian) boss, Rabbi Dresin. For the non-chaplain world, it must be clarified that the Endorser holds the civilian equivalent of a one-star. He has immediate access to the Chief of Chaplains’ offices. Rabbi Dresin is also a retired O6 Army Chaplain with nearly 30 years of Active Duty; hence, he’s a man who knows the battleground.
Upon hearing the dilemma, Rabbi Dresin reacted with the same righteous indignation I was feeling, and gave me the go-ahead for my plan. Time was of the essence—it was now 22:00, the evening before Yom Kippur. I got this chaplain’s cell phone number, and despite the lateness of the hour, dialed him directly. Thankfully, he picked up the phone. “Hey Chaplain, I’m calling from the Endorser’s office, and I’d like to clarify what’s going on with PFC A.,” I began. “I understand he doesn’t have permission to go to synagogue for Yom Kippur?”
The chaplain’s response didn’t help his cause. “We don’t have anyone to accompany him,” he said. “We have a Jewish lay leader on base who agreed to take him, and he can stay at the rabbi’s house. Those people can take full responsibility for the Marine,” I rejoined.
“Well, the lay leader is Army, and the rabbi is a civilian, so we don’t trust them,” stumbled the chaplain. Inter-branch rivalry aside, this claim was bogus, and I told him that in no uncertain terms. “Listen, Chaplain; if Jewish soldiers and Marines on the front lines of World War II were given permission to leave the battlefield to pray on this holiest of Jewish holidays, you can definitely do something to get permission for this Marine to pray in a Stateside, peacetime circumstance. And if you don’t have that permission by 09:00 tomorrow morning, my Endorser will be calling the Navy Chief of Chaplains—with your name on the line.” With those pleasantries, I got off the phone.
A mere 15 minutes later, my phone rang—and what do you know? Miracle of miracles! The Marine was given permission to attend synagogue on Yom Kippur.
I love my job.
Originally published in 2023 High Holiday issue of The Jewish American Warrior.