By: CH (MAJ) Moshe Lans, USA
I was born in 1975 in a small town in Massachusetts, and grew up in a very Americanized, Conservative Jewish household. All things considered, ours was a pretty traditional Jewish home: we celebrated some semblance of Chanukah, went to shul on most Jewish holidays, made a few blessings that we probably mispronounced, but we did the best we knew how. The rabbi of our synagogue was Rabbi Lowell Weiss, who, I later found out, was actually a USNR chaplain. He encouraged everybody to be active participants in Judaism. I remember that at one point he got very frustrated that his summer synagogue service numbers would drop, so he offered Red Sox tickets to any kids who’d come to Friday night or Saturday services.
My father had been in the Army and served in Vietnam, in Armor. He saw quite a bit of action, and was a Purple Heart recipient a few times over. My mother was also military; she was a yeoman in the USN, and served stateside. Both served one enlisted contract as Active Duty, and kept pride in their military service afterwards. For Armed Forces Day, we always went to nearby Fort Devins, and we’d tour the grounds and enjoy the celebrations. They’d feature tanks on display, and coming from his Armor background, my dad would explain all the technology and developments to me. So I grew up with a lot of pride in the military, and with a lot of patriotism.
Our family was educated with traditional Jewish education. My older sister went to the Lubavitcher Yeshiva of Worcester until we moved, and I went to preschool in that school as well. Even though I was little, I recall some of the energy of the education there. One of the rabbis, Rabbi Fishman, was a large man with a huge beard and booming baritone voice. He left an absolutely indelible impression on me as he described the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, with the thunder and lightning and all, in preparation for the holiday of Shavuos. Many years later, as a Sergeant deployed in Iraq, I received a “thank you for your service” letter from a student at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva of Worcester. I very proudly responded to her that I had attended the school as a pre-schooler, and remembered the rabbis, including her own grandfather and Rabbi Fishman. To my great surprise and pleasure, Rabbi Fishman wrote back to me. That was a wonderful moment.
Later, our family moved to Broward County, FL, where I went to High School. I enlisted on May 20, 1993, while still a senior; interested in the Army both because of my patriotism, but also because of the college benefits. My senior high school experience ended up being different than that of all my friends; on the one hand I had Drill weekends while they were out partying, but I also had extra money.
My first MOS was as a combat medic, and Basic Training for us was at Fort Jackson. I was not in shape, and I was in for a shock. A drill sergeant pulled out those of us who were struggling at PT, and made a pointed comment while looking directly at me about “the weak guys not making it through”. I responded, “Drill Sergeant, the US Army will not pay me a penny for the bronze I do not have; but they will pay me a dollar for the brains I do have!” The Drill SGT walked away to laugh at the comment, but of course, he still gave me an extended PT session. I was very insubordinate, but I made it through basic – barely!
Throughout my senior year, I was assigned to a combat support hospital in Perrine, FL. I had a great time there. I was very limited in what I could do because I had not gone to AIT, so I mostly did training, courses and simple tasks. After I graduated high school, I finally did AIT. There was one very interesting note – although I was not religious per se, in my high school yearbook, I wrote down that my dream job would be the Jewish chaplain at West Point. I knew there was a need for Jewish chaplains, but I never thought realistically that I would one day become one.
I stayed in the Reserves, and began taking classes at Touro College toward getting a degree. At Touro, I was very intrigued by my Jewish studies course, and found myself looking for something more substantial than the dry university classes. The head of Touro’s Jewish Studies Department saw my thirst for Torah knowledge, so he sent me to a small yeshiva for returnees to Judaism in Queens, called Kesser Torah. That was the first time I did any serious Jewish learning.
Overall, I had an interesting Reserve career; remaining a combat medic, until eventually I reclassed as a Chaplain’s Assistant. That change happened as a result of the first Jewish chaplain I met, who was a Reservist assigned to my brigade at Fort Hamilton. By that point, I was keeping Shabbos, and the chaplain was able to work out with my command permission for me to get Shabbos off. Because of his influence, I moved over to become a Chaplain’s Assistant. In my non-Reserve life, I became a DoD civilian. That expanded my knowledge of the ins and outs of office work. I learned a lot in that job, which really helped me when I became a Chaplain. Truth be told, my enlisted career moved pretty slowly. I remained an E5 for quite a while, mostly because I didn’t go to the schools I should have. But I was a really good DoD civilian, and was moving up quickly there.
In 2005, while still a Reservist, I was deployed to Baghdad for twelve months as part of a chaplain detachment team. This was in the middle of the President Bush’s Surge – at that point, we had 170,000 troops fighting heavily in Iraq. I arrived between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and quickly got myself oriented to my responsibilities. We were assigned to augment the AD chaplains at Camp Liberty, which was just outside the Baghdad International Airport. At the time, there were two Jewish chaplains in Iraq, CDR Mitchell Schranz and CPT Mordechai Schwab. It was an intense Yom Kippur – you could hear missiles and explosions constantly while we prayed. Chaplain Schranz ran Yom Kippur services at Camp Victory. While I assisted him in setting things up, during services I was focused on prayer, so I kept my Tallis over my head. But apparently I was also attracting someone’s attention…
At this point, we turn our attention to Mrs. Laurie Lans, or as she was known then, LtJG Laurie Zimmet.
I couldn’t get to shul for Kol Nidrei, because the road from my office at Camp Slayer to Camp Victory was too dangerous to walk at night. But I walked the 3.5 miles during the day to get there for Yom Kippur services, in full body armor, loaded down with weapons. I finally got to the chapel, exhausted and totally dehydrated as a result of the incredible heat. I was religiously observant, and as I walked in, I saw that there was no mechitza to separate between the men and women in the chapel. I thought to myself, “No biggie – I’ll pray in the back.”
I began looking around to get my bearings, and then I saw something that drew my eye. There was a man in uniform in the front of the room with a Tallis over his head. I had no idea if he was a general or a private; I couldn’t see his rank. But as he said the confessional prayer Al Cheit, he was banging his chest with tremendous force – I had never seen anyone doing Al Cheit as loud and hard as this man! It was remarkable! I was trying to pray in the back, and I kept hearing the “Thump! Thump!” of him hitting his chest. Now I don’t know if it was because of the bombs going off in the background, the dehydration, or whatever – but I decided I’m going to go over to this guy and check his rank. If he’s a PVT, I’m going to call rank on him (as a LtJG) and tell him to cut it out; and if he’s a GEN, well, then I’ll let him beat himself up. But he had that Tallis on, covering everything up, and I couldn’t tell his rank! I kept trying to peek at his uniform to figure out his rank, looking one way or another.
Finally, I couldn’t handle it any longer, and during a break in the services, and despite the possible breach of modesty, I walked straight up to him and said, “Soldier, what did you possibly do that could be that wrong?!” He turned around to look at me, he took the Tallis off his head, and there was a huge explosion in the background as he said, “Oh, you wouldn’t want to know!” To which I responded, “I want to hear every detail!” And that is how Moshe Lans met Laurie Zimmet.
Back to Ch. Lans:
A few months after that Yom Kippur, both Jewish chaplains left theater, and I was made the Jewish Lay Leader. The senior chaplain called me into his office, and instructed me to make a plan to serve the Jews in the area in some sort of battlefield rotation. He gave me 24 hours to come up with the plan.
The next day, I came into his office, and handed him a paper that said: “Option 1: Get a new Jewish chaplain. Option 2: See number one.” The senior chaplain was furious with me for that! I told him, “Listen, I know where all the Jews in the AOR are located. But in order to visit them on battlefield rotations, I’d need Air Mission Requests filled, with helicopters to back me up. I’m just an E5; there are O6s not getting air mission requests fulfilled because they’re so overloaded with requests!” The chaplain looked me in the eye and said, “I’m an O5. I can get those requests filled. Give me those lists and a schedule of when and where you want to visit!” Two weeks later, he called me back into his office, and handed me a stack of approved AMRs!
So I took on that responsibility, and made sure to visit every Jew we knew of, at every FOB. During that period, I also used to walk 4 miles every Shabbos to study Torah with Laurie. She kept on pushing me to expand my horizons, saying, “Why aren’t you an officer?” Laurie eventually got moved to the Green Zone; so we got her endorsed as a Lay Leader as well, and were able to split responsibilities up between us. We were able to accomplish a lot during that year.
All throughout that time, Aleph was an incredible support for me. Rabbi Katz sent me whatever we needed, along with detailed instructions on how to do everything – how to teach people to lay Tefillin, specific prayers to say and teach and more. Somehow, whenever I asked him for supplies, he’d get them to me within a couple of weeks. Regular Army channels would take several weeks longer!
When I got back CONUS, Rabbi Katz invited me to the first Aleph Shabbat With the Troops conference. I was thrilled to come – I wanted to come and personally thank Aleph for everything they’d done for me and our troops out in Iraq. I really had a great time at the Shabbaton, and that Sunday, a fellow participant told me about a program to get Semicha. Laurie strongly encouraged me to jump on the opportunity, so I did, and became a Chaplain Candidate in 2008.
At that point, Laurie and I were really good friends, but we’d never actually dated. That winter I went to CHBOLC, while Laurie was in DC on extended orders. Thanksgiving was coming up, and both of us had always wanted to go to the Macy’s Day Parade in Manhattan, so we agreed to meet there for the weekend. Laurie had no idea, but I went with the explicit intent of proposing to her. When I did propose to her, she was taken aback, and being a bit hesitant, said she’d think about it.
In the meantime, that Thursday, the Chabad House in Mumbai was attacked by terrorists. We didn’t yet know what happened to the Chabad representatives there, Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg. That Shabbos morning, we went to Rabbi Kugel’s shul in the Upper West Side. In his sermon that day, Rabbi Kugel made reference to the tragic situation in Mumbai with the Holtzbergs, and said, “In honor of the Holtzbergs, everyone needs to live life as completely as possible. If you’re thinking of having a baby, and worried about finances, do it anyway. If you’re thinking of getting married and are hesitating for any reason, just do it.” Laurie was furious, thinking that I told him to say that, so she quickly picked her head over the mechitza to see my reaction. I ducked! The guy sitting next to me asked me what’s going on, and I said, “I just proposed to a girl on the other side, and she’s not sure yet…” He started cracking up, and now the Rabbi wanted to know what was going on! And when he heard, Rabbi Kugel started laughing, and publicly said, “I was not asked by anyone to make this announcement!”
By Saturday night, unfortunately we’d found out that the Holtzbergs had been killed, so we decided to take the Rabbi’s suggestion seriously. On Sunday morning, we went to the Rebbe’s resting place to ask for his blessing for our marriage, and some friends made a mini-engagement party on the spot. We were married in 2009, and went AD soon after, in winter 2010.
That year, I went on my first AD chaplain deployment. I followed CH Joey Messinger, who had begun a very successful newsletter, called “Jewish Afghanistan”. There was an O6 who really liked the newsletter, but he wanted to change the name, because he thought it was too “evangelical”. Laurie and I discussed it for a long time, and eventually changed the name of the newsletter to “Dveikus”, meaning “deep connection”. Considering the impact their tragic death had on our lives, we dedicated it in memory of Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg. We still publish that newsletter. Dveikus, as well as any other good that we do in the military, is always dedicated to them.
Considering their length of their service, as well as their extensive experiences assisting Jewish Service Members with their Judaism, we asked CH and Mrs. Lans two crucial questions about keeping Judaism in uniform, particularly for Enlisted personnel:
What challenges do Jewish Service Members typically face? What is critical for Jewish enlisted personnel to know?
*Upholding Jewish tenets in the US Armed Services requires ardent devotion and effort. Kosher, Shabbos, Family Purity are all capable of being observed without compromise to halacha or serving in the United States military, but it is not easy. Most importantly, deliberate prior planning is critical to achieving success. As an example, the closest kosher butcher has been round-trip three hours or more from this Chaplain since entering active duty ten years ago, so prior planning is critical to ensuring ample kosher meat. Additionally, keeping the Service Member’s Chain of Command apprised of their religious needs breaks down barriers, and assists in obtaining any permission desired or needed. In this Chaplain’s experience, military schools are the least accommodating, with Initial Entry Training the most stringent and the least favorable towards religious accommodation requests.
*Realize that Judaism is not an all or nothing religion. Do what you know, aspire to learn more, and observe more as you slowly grow. Know that every US Armed Service branch permits yarmulkes in uniform. Understand the regulations regarding the yarmulke to comply.
*Enlisted Initial Entry Training is unlike the remainder of your career. You will need to be somewhat flexible. For example, Enlisted Service Members during Initial Entry Training who keep kosher will be hungry! Observing the strictest kosher standards during enlisted Initial Entry Training is very close to impossible. Observing Shabbos and holidays during enlisted Initial Entry Training is extremely difficult. Prearrange enlisted Initial Entry Training such that there are no Jewish holidays interfered with.
*Eating at the dining facilities is not going to properly fulfill a kosher diet. Enlisted Service Members who live in the barracks need separate rations to keep kosher. Enlisted Service Members receiving separate rations are able to eat kosher 100% of the time, but this requires access to a cooking facility. Cooking kosher and non-kosher together in the same place is difficult, and not advisable. A shared kitchen is not ideal, but consulting an orthodox Rabbi/Chaplain will help you work out the details how to make things work.
*Understand that the separate rations money enlisted Soldiers receive is for their dining facilities but is being paid to these enlisted Soldiers because they keep kosher, which precludes eating at the dining facility. To receive separate rations but consume non-kosher is tantamount to a chilul Hashem – a desecration of G-d’s Name. Do not consider this a deterrent to keeping kosher and fulfilling this beautiful mitzvah.
*Work on non-Jewish holidays for those who work instead of you during the Jewish holidays.
*Do your utmost always to be a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d’s Name, by being exemplary in all you do.
*And know that I am always here to help you and your family!
Originally published in the Three Weeks 2020 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.