Rabbi Aaron Kleinman, CDR, CHC, USN.
“In a place where there is no one (lit: are no men), strive to be a leader (lit: a man).” —Rabbi Hillel (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5)
It was a beautiful spring day onboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in 2016. There I was, a 42-year-old, in the position known as the “front leaning rest,” doing push-ups with a large class of enlisted Sailors at Field Medical Training Battalion West, where I was the Battalion Chaplain. I looked at the 1 Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters flagpole, and there was a gorgeous American flag wafting in the breeze. In the Southern California sun, the red stripes popped, the white stars shined, and the blue background looked like you could SCUBA dive in it. The thought hit me: “I’ve been doing Physical Readiness Tests under those Stars and Stripes for a quarter century. How did that happen?!”
In truth, it was an accident. Or, for those of us who strive to live with emunah (faith), it was hashgacha pratis (G-d overseeing the details).
I grew up in the Conservative movement. Judaism was always important to me, but outside of bringing matzoh sandwiches to school on Pesach and missing athletic events on the High Holidays, it did not impact my daily life very much. It certainly did not impact my choice of colleges, as I chose the United States Naval Academy, more out of a desire to do something different than of an overwhelming desire to serve in the military. While there, I started attending Shabbat services regularly for the first time since my bar mitzvah. Most Midshipmen attend services their plebe (freshman) year when they have very limited liberty. After that, attendance begins to drop off. Judaism became my anchor – I stayed engaged in the services and Torah studies all four years, even serving as president of the Jewish Midshipmen’s Club my last two years there. Over that time, we had three Jewish chaplains, and they all were formative for me in some way.
After graduation in 1995 and commissioning, I went to flight school. I engaged with local Jewish communities in cities like Pensacola, FL; Corpus Christi, TX; and Meridian, MS. After flight school, I was stationed in Norfolk, VA. I joined a local synagogue. After my first deployment, the “Millennium” cruise on USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), I was ready to start looking for a bride. I walked into the shul’s executive director’s office and asked her, “What’s there in the way of Jewish singles groups around?” She replied, “Nothing. But there is an annual single’s retreat in Virginia Beach this weekend.” I signed up and met a beautiful attorney from New York. Hillary and I married just over a year later, having moved our wedding up due to the September 11th terrorist attacks.
My second deployment was aboard USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) in 2002. I was determined to be more involved in Jewish life this time around, having no real memory of participating on the first deployment. I walked in to the Command Chaplain’s office and, momentarily forgetting the old line that “Navy” is an acronym for “Never Again Volunteer Yourself ”, I asked Father Jon Fredricksson, “Who’s your Jewish lay leader?” He gave me a great, big smile and said, “You are.” Feeling slightly chagrined, I went through the process of being trained and certified as a lay leader. Shortly afterward, I led my first High Holiday services just weeks after 9/11.
The biggest highlight of our deployment was our Pesach seder. NAVCENT flew the inimitable Rabbi CH (COL) Yaakov Goldstein, NG (later USAR) out to our ship. He led an entirely kosher seder in the middle of the Persian Gulf. As anyone who has deployed and had access to services can vouch for, there are few things more grounding during stressful times than rituals and connections of faith.
Shortly after deployment, Hillary and I were transferred to Saint Augustine, FL. After six months of futilely searching for the “right” Conservative synagogue for us there, we joined an Orthodox congregation. We were both ripe for a spiritual transformation, and slowly began adopting a Torah lifestyle. In order to catch up on our knowledge of Jewish law, we started taking classes. As we grew in our knowledge and observance, it became obvious that we could not continue on this path and balance the demands of life as an Active Duty Naval Aviator. After ten years, 2200 flight hours, 250 carrier arrested landings, and 87 combat missions, I resigned my commission.
Someone advised me to apply for the Naval Reserves. Dubiously (“How am I going to drill on Shabbat?”), I called the Commanding Officer of the Reserve squadron up. He made a deal with me – if I went on more than my fair share of counter- narco-terror detachments, he would let me drill Friday/Sunday or Sunday/Monday. I agreed, and I embarked upon three years flying in the Navy Reserves.
There were some challenges. Since I left active service, I had begun to wear a yarmulke full-time. When I showed up for my first drill weekend, it marked the first time in my life I was to wear a yarmulke in uniform outside of Jewish services. I was a little nervous about how it would be received by my squadron mates. With some trepidation, I walked into the hangar and up to the ready room. Another Reservist recognized me as a new guy, and he began chatting with me. He seemed not even to notice I was wearing a kippah! Feeling relieved, I asked him where the coffee was. He pointed behind me. As I turned, my yarmulke came fully into his field of view. He jumped back three feet, yelled “Whoa!” and began singing “Hava Nagilah! Hava Nagilah!” Not quite the reaction I anticipated, but it did effectively break the ice.
The second challenge came shortly after change of command. The new CO called me into his office along with the Executive Officer and Officer in Charge, all O5s. He wanted to revisit the issue of me not flying on Shabbat. He told me that if we were on detachment and some of the other pilots were to be sick or unable to fly for any reason, he would have to ask me to fly even on Shabbat. I looked him in the eye and reassured him that if it were a search and rescue mission or an actual combat mission, there would be no problem. “However, sir,” I said, “if it’s a normal counter-narcotics mission, I’m going to have to tell you no.” The room became very quiet for a few tense moments. Finally, he answered, “It’s not a problem until it’s a problem.” Thankfully, G-d never put me in that position. Those three years showed me that it would be challenging, but certainly possible, to be Torah observant in the Navy. During this time, I remained a lay leader for our squadron. I went to the inaugural Jewish Chaplain and Lay Leader training event by a then little-known organization called the Aleph Institute. I had no idea how important Aleph would later be in my career. Baruch Hashem, I’ve made every one of the training Shabbatons except one (perhaps two).
In the meantime, our lives took a few turns. My wife and I were blessed with a son. We continued to take courses to boost our knowledge and to grow in Torah. The yeshiva I was studying with became an Endorsing Agent to sponsor chaplains into the military. Almost on a whim, we requested information on that program. A few hours later, I was on the phone with the head of the yeshiva. Upon hearing my background he said, “I don’t have anyone in the Navy yet. You’re my guy.” I demurred, needing some time to think and talk it over. Later that evening, Hillary and I had a long conversation. We reflected on our paths, on how we had ended up become religiously observant. And we reflected on the glaring need. When I had been first commissioned in 1995, there were 15 rabbis on Active Duty in the Navy. Now we were down to seven. The main reason Jewish chaplains fail is an inability to adapt to the military environment. I had been swimming those seas since I was 17 years old. It seemed like several events in our past lined up, forming a big arrow saying “Go this way.” We resolved to be part of the solution. After a few years of hard work, I was awarded semicha and an Endorsement as a chaplain. The Navy accepted me, and I began my career in 2008 at Naval Station Great Lakes.
We lived in West Rogers Park, nearly 30 miles south of the base, and I commuted up daily. One Shabbat early in my tour, a neighboring family invited us for a Shabbat meal. Their 10-year-old son asked me what a chaplain did. As I pondered how to explain something I wasn’t all that sure of myself to a 10-year-old, he said, “Never mind. I know what you do.” I asked him what that was, and he replied, “You go around telling people, ‘It’s okay. You can do it.’” There is far more truth in that statement than I realized at the time. In all services, chaplains do roughly the same things. In the Navy’s terminology, we provide religious rites and services for members of our own faith group, we Facilitate rites and services for other faith groups, we Care (pastoral counseling, life skills classes, etc.) for everyone regardless of faith (or lack thereof), and we Advise the command on matters of morale, morals, ethics, and religion.
Most of us come in with a burning desire to provide – I wanted to do Jewish stuff for Jewish Sailors and Marines. We rapidly realize that even at the tactical level, religious provision is a very small part of what we do. Most junior chaplains give care in the form of pastoral counseling and life skills classes far more than they provide or facilitate religious services. And the burdens some of these young men and women bear can be utterly heartbreaking. It is a privilege to come alongside them and walk with them through difficult times. A frustrating aspect of chaplaincy is that we rarely get to see what becomes of the people we help. Every now and again, we are blessed to see them come through to the other side and blossom.
At some point, a philosophical difference led me to regretfully break my connection with my previous Endorsing Agent. I called Rabbi Dresin at Aleph, and they welcomed me with open arms.
It is hard to believe it’s been twelve years since that first tour. My family and I have executed military sedarim at home, in the desert of Twentynine Palms, California, and on bases throughout the country. I’ve led High Holiday services underway, on base, and overseas. I’ve blown shofar throughout the world and inside a nuclear reactor at sea. I’ve built sukkot in Illinois, Virginia, California, Tennessee, and in Bahrain. In my responsibility to provide for free exercise of religion, I’ve helped Muslim Marines receive Halal meals and Wiccan Sailors celebrate International Pagan Pride day. We’ve been stationed at five different places, with the Marines and with the Navy, and our children have been to five different schools (our eldest had reached that number by second grade). I have celebrated more retirements and changes of commands than one can count. I’ve also done more memorial services than one can count, and recited Psalms over the body bags of my Marines far too many times. We’ve had two short notice cross-country moves, and one of them my wife did solo with three children under eight years of age.
I do not know how long I will be allowed to serve. But I cannot imagine a more rewarding career than caring for the finest people on this planet, while also being able to serve the Jewish community in a manner very few can.
Originally published in the Purim 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.