Compiled by: Ch, Maj Elie Estrin, USAFR
July 29, 1775: The Continental Congress establishes chaplaincy for the US military.
July 1861: The 65th Regiment of the 5th PA Cavalry, commanded by Col. Max Freedman, elects Capt. Michael Allen as their chaplain. Allen had previously served as a Sunday school teacher at his synagogue in Philadelphia, but was not an ordained rabbi.
Sep 23, 1861: Capt. Allen resigns as a result of a complaint from a YMCA volunteer. Assistant adjutant general of the Army, George D. Ruggles, writes: “Any person mustered into service as a chaplain, who is not a regularly ordained clergyman of a Christian denomination, will be at once discharged without pay or allowance.” Allen resigns his commission on the excuse of “poor health” rather than suffer the dishonor of dismissal from the service.
Note: This and the next date are the subject of some debate, as discussed in this Warrior article.
October 23, 1861: Col. Freedman convinces the Rabbi of New York’s Cong. Shearith Israel, Arnold Fischel, to apply for the chaplaincy, as an ordained clergyman. On this date, he is denied the position for not being of Christian denomination.
Dec. 11, 1861: Fischel personally meets with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss Jews as chaplains.
Dec. 13, 1861: Lincoln writes to Fischel: “I find there are several particulars in which the present law in regard to Chaplains is supposed to be deficient, all which I now design presenting to the appropriate Committee of Congress. I shall try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites.”
March 12, 1862: The law allowing non-Christian chaplains passes in the Senate.
July 17, 1862: The law allowing non-Christian chaplains passes the House. It reads: “No person shall be appointed a Chaplain in the United States Army who is not a regularly ordained minister of some religious denomination, and who does not present testimonials of his good standing as such minister, with a recommendation as an Army Chaplain, from some authorized ecclesiastical body of not less than five accredited ministers belonging to said denomination.”
Sep 18, 1862: Reverend Jacob Frankel, enlists in the Union Army to serve as the first Jewish US military chaplain. He serves in a hospital.
April 1863: Chaplain Ferdinand Sarner becomes the chaplain of the 54th NY Regiment. He would become the first Jewish chaplain to serve under fire. His horse was shot out from under him and he was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg.
April 9, 1917: The first Jewish ecclesiastical endorsing body, the Jewish Board for Welfare Work (later called the Jewish Welfare Board) is formed. In September of 1917, it is granted government recognition. Its current Endorser is Chaplain CAPT Irv Elson, USN CHC.
May 1917: Chaplain Harry Richmond enlists in the Army, joining the 34th Division. He would become the only Jewish chaplain to serve overseas in both WWI and WWII, one of two Jewish chaplains who served in combat in both European and Pacific theaters of WWII (the other being Chaplain Aryo Hyams); and as one of the two Jewish chaplains stationed in Honolulu at the bombing of Pearl Harbor, with Chaplain H. Cerf Straus, the first two Jewish chaplains under fire in WWII.
June 1917: The Jewish chaplain’s insignia is fixed. The Navy would adopt it in 1941. (Until then, Jewish Navy chaplains were enjoined to wear a cross or a non-denominational shepherd’s crook.) The letters representing the Ten Commandments on the Tablets were originally Roman numerals. On December 17, 1980, the Navy changed them to the Hebrew letters, and the Army and Air Force followed soon after.
Feb. 2, 1943: The USS Dorchester is sunk by a German U-Boat. On it are the legendary Four Chaplains, who gave their life jackets to others, including Chaplain Alexander Goode, who is the first Jewish chaplain to be killed in uniform.
April 11, 1944: Chaplains Herschel Schacter and Emanuel Schenk, two of the 32 Jewish chaplains who entered Germany with Allied troops, are with the General Patton’s troops as they liberate Buchenwald. Chaplains Eli Bohnen and David Eichhorn enter Dachau on April 30. Later, Chaplain Abraham Klausner arrives at Dachau. When his unit was moves, he tells his superiors, falsely, that he was reassigned to Dachau. He founded the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews of Europe, and was a major figure in assisting the displaced Jews
August 1944: Chaplain Judah Nadich is appointed Special Consultant on Jewish Affairs to General Dwight Eisenhower.
March 21, 1945: Chaplain Roland Gittelsohn, the first Jewish chaplain attached to the USMC, gives a speech at the dedication of the cemetery at Iwo Jima: “Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.” It achieves notoriety as the most influential speech ever given by a military chaplain, partially because many of his fellow chaplains tried to force the local command chaplain to rescind his invitation to Gittelsohn to speak at the public dedication of the cemetery. Attempting to ward off controversy, Gittselsohn declined the honor, but gave the speech at the Jewish dedication of the cemetery. Copies of it were then spread, by friendly chaplains, up the chain of command and to media outlets around the world. Gittelsohn later wrote: “I have often wondered whether anyone would ever have heard of my Iwo Jima sermon had it not been for the bigoted attempt to ban it.” For decades, this speech was read by Congress every year on Memorial Day.
January 1, 1948: The Survivor’s Talmud is printed by the US Army to fill the requests for Torah study material in the DP Camps.
November 2, 1948: A tragedy atop a tragedy: Air Force Chaplain Solomon Rosen, son of Chaplain Herman Rosen, who drowned on June 18, 1943 – the day before he was to enter Army Chaplain School – is killed when the C-47 he is flying in is hit by lightning.
1950: A “Rabbinical selective service” is created to voluntarily draft Jewish chaplains into uniformed service. This unofficial “draft” from the major Jewish seminaries would last until the Vietnam War, when anti-war sentiment pervading the culture forces the change.
December 16, 1964: CH (LTC) Meir Engel, the only Jewish chaplain to serve in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, dies of a heart attack while deployed to Vietnam. At the time, he had been serving a special mission as the liaison to Buddhist officials as they set up a chaplaincy in the South Vietnamese Army. In that context, Engel reported directly to General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam.
1974-1975: The USAF builds a mikvah at Elmendorf Air Force Base, the first mikvah in Alaska, under the auspices and for the needs of Chaplain Israel Haber.
July 1975: Chaplain Bertram Korn is promoted to Rear Admiral, the first Jewish chaplain to receive flag rank in any of the United States armed forces. He is followed by Brigadier General Simeon Kobrinetz (USAFR – 1983), Brigadier General Israel Drazin (USAR – 1984), Rear Admiral Aaron Landes (USNR-1987), Brigadier General David Zalis (USAR-2001) and Rear Admiral Harold Robinson (USNR-2004).
July 1976: Chaplain Mitchell Geller wins his court case against the USAF for attempting to reassign him to Inactive Reserve status for wearing a beard. In upholding Geller’s claim, Judge Robinson ruled that the court is persuaded by the record that “the wearing of beards, although not required, is a well-established religious tradition among members of the Jewish faith, and that Geller wore his beard in furtherance of that religious practice.”
January 30, 1978: Chaplain Jacob Goldstein is granted exception to policy by the Chief of Staff of the Army to wear a beard “as long as Rabbi Goldstein remains a member of his current religious community” while in the NY National Guard.
November 23, 1979: Two Jewish students at Harvard University, Joel Katcoff and Allen Weider, sue the US Army on the basis of being taxpayers, arguing that military chaplains should be replaced with non-combat volunteers or contractors. Jewish US Army Reserve chaplain and civilian lawyer, Chaplain Israel Drazin, is given the responsibility of directing the case (later to be named Katcoff v. Marsh) from the perspective of the Chaplain Corps. He was assisted by Chaplain Sanford Dresin, then the Army Chaplain Corps’ Chief of Personnel Actions. In its final ruling, issued on January 22, 1985, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit finally upholds the right of the military to employ chaplains.
1981: The Aleph Institute is founded, directed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to assist and care for the well-being of members of specific populations that are isolated from the regular community: US military personnel, prisoners, and people institutionalized or at risk of incarceration due to mental illness or addictions.
Oct. 23, 1983: US Navy Chaplain Arnold Resnicoff is present at the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, and immediately involves himself in the rescue efforts. On April 13, 1984, President Reagan recounted Chaplain Resnicoff’s experiences at a speech to a Baptist Fundamentalism conference, including his recollections about how following the bombing, he had lost his yarmulke sometime after using it to wipe a wounded Marine’s face. To help his colleague replace it, Catholic Chaplain George Pucciarelli tore off a piece of his own Marine camouflage uniform. This speech was entered into the Congressional Record, and it had significant influence on the Yarmulke Law of 1988. Chaplain Resnicoff would later become the first Jewish EUCOM Command Chaplain.
1986: Goldstein vs. Weinberger – the Yarmulke Case. From 1970-1972, S. Simcha Goldman served as a Navy Chaplain, and later transferred to the USAF as a clinical psychologist. Dr. Goldman was threatened with court martial for wearing a yarmulke indoors, after having done so for many years in Active Duty without incident. Shockingly, Dr. Goldman lost his case in the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision, but Congress reversed it in a provision added to the 1988 National Defense Authorization Act, declaring: “A member of the armed forces may wear an item of religious apparel while wearing the uniform of the member’s armed force.”
June 2007: Chaplain Brett Oxman becomes the first Jewish Air Force Command Chaplain. Chaplain Oxman’s unique approach to military chaplaincy, with a primary focus on the operational side of the Air Force over chapel-based services, will become the template for all AF chaplains in the decades ahead. In 2010, he becomes the first Jewish war fighting Component Command Chaplain (AFCENT), and follows that in 2011 when he becomes the first Jewish MAJCOM Command Chaplain.
July 1, 2007: After decades of servicing Jewish service members with supplies, The Aleph Institute becomes a DoD recognized ecclesiastical endorsing agency. Chaplain (COL) Sanford Dresin, the Vietnam War’s most decorated Jewish chaplain and the only Jewish chaplain to serve (secretly) in Cambodia, becomes its Endorser.
November 23, 2011: Chaplain Mendy Stern becomes the first bearded Active Duty Army chaplain in the modern US military, following litigation represented by famed lawyer Nathan Lewin, who had fought the Geller and Goldman cases as well. Chaplain Stern is followed by Chaplain Levy Pekar (USAF, 2017) and Chaplain Levi Ceitlin (USN, 2019).
October 24, 2011: The Chaplain Monument on Chaplains Hill at Arlington is dedicated, honoring the 14 Jewish chaplains who have given their lives in defense of this country.
Today: We currently have 80+ Jewish chaplains across all branches of the US military, including Reserve and National Guard, attached to bases across the world.
References: Rabbis in Uniform, by Louis Barash; The Fighting Rabbis, by Albert Slomovitz
Originally printed in the Three Weeks 2020 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.