CH (MAJ) Menachem Stern, USA
Back in 2015, I was assigned to the 92nd Military Police Battalion at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri as the Battalion Chaplain. Around Chanukah time, the unit announced plans for a major training event in February/March 2015. As a result, we would all have to travel to a training site for a two-week field exercise.
The departure day for the exercise was scheduled for the day before Purim. I discussed my options with the training officer and the XO to see whether I could depart after Purim. To my surprise, I was told that the commander specified that I could not arrive late to the exercise and that I must travel with the rest of the “main body.”
To note, during the Aleph training conference of that year, I had raised a question to senior chaplains in the room on how to handle this exact situation and who should lead the base’s Purim services in my absence. All the senior chaplains advised me to go to the training and make Purim myself in the field. They told me not to worry about the base as it is the responsibility of the senior chaplain (who isn’t Jewish).
I approached Rabbi Dresin and asked if he would support my request to depart a day late to conduct Purim services and still arrive at the exercise at a reasonable time. Rabbi Dresin told me that although he thought it would be a futile request, he would support me as it is a religious service.
After discussing the challenges with a senior mentor and friend in the presence of my wife, my wife put forward the question: Why did I join the military and what is my purpose as a Jewish Chaplain? The mentor, hearing that question, added that I must find a careful approach to handle this delicate situation as my commander may see my fight as subverting his authority.
When I returned to FLW, I sent an email to my command asking for guidance in ensuring that Purim services would be available to the Troops on the base, to which my commander responded that he wanted me to be in the field. Next, I sent an email to the Garrison Chaplain detailing some suggested courses of action, including voluntarily traveling back from the exercise to conduct Purim services on the base. That would mean that I would depart from the base with the first convoy (ADCON), set up my tent and prepare for the arrival of the main body, and then return to the base on Taanit Esther (the fast day), conduct Purim services, and then drive back to the field for the duration of the exercise.
Initially, Chaplain Thomas, the Garrison Chaplain, suggested that Purim be moved to the weekend beforehand, and I explained that this is impossible to do. During our meeting, Chaplain Thomas suggested again that Purim be moved to another time; I asked if he would move any of the Christian holidays to another date. He responded that it was not possible. So I suggested an alternative option: “I could go back to Shushan and ask Esther and Mordechai if they are flexible with the schedule to accommodate the FTX in 2015.” Chaplain Thomas laughed at the notion and drafted an email to his boss, the Garrison Commander, requesting funding to bring a civilian rabbi to the base for Purim.
As a Jew who attended my services, the Garrison Commander reacted strongly. He instructed the Garrison Chaplain to ensure I was conducting Jewish services on the base. This led to the TDY orders and coordination, which brought me back from the FTX to FLW for 24 hours. It is worth noting that due to a blizzard, the roads were treacherous, and by the grace of God, I managed to travel back and forth without incident.
Originally published in the Purim 2022 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.