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By: CH (CPT) Michoel Harari, USA

From a young age, I knew I wanted to be in the military. But it was a journey to get there, one that I’m very grateful for.

I grew up in Surfside, Florida, which was mostly a military retirement community back then. My maternal grandfather, who was a veteran, lived a few blocks away from my family. I used to spend a lot of time looking at his military awards, medals, and photos. I loved hearing his stories and splicing together 8 mm films to watch clips of him flying through the clouds above Korea.

Before moving to Surfside, my grandfather lived in Brooklyn and had volunteered in the Air Force shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was later transferred to the Army in 1947 and served until he retired in 1974. A strong patriot and proud Jew, he always looked for opportunities to practice his Judaism while in the military, such as abstaining from certain non-kosher foods and requesting leave for Pesach so he could be with his family.

Needless to say, my grandfather had a strong influence on my life. He and my grandmother also nurtured my love of nature. They had a home near the beautiful mountains of Asheville, North Carolina where they lived for half the year. Whenever I visited them, we would go hiking, climbing, backpacking, fishing, and living in the backcountry. I enjoyed it so much, and these activities went a long way toward fostering my sense of adventure. One way that I currently express my love of nature is through a wilderness program that my wife and I created for Jewish teens. They develop fantastic outdoor skills and in the process learn so much about themselves and the world. I feel that my grandfather’s influence continues to shine, affecting many young Jewish teens in such a positive way through our program.

Besides my grandfather, other family members – including my father, and some of my cousins, aunts, and uncles – also served in the military, which made military service become very familiar to me. In the 1960s when my father relocated to America from Alexandria, Egypt, he was drafted into the US military and sent to Vietnam. He went on to serve honorably for four years.

When I finally felt ready to join the military, I thought a lot about where I wanted to be. Since I had grown up in a beach town, my thoughts initially turned toward the Navy, which is stationed in coastal areas. I knew there would probably be Jewish communities nearby in places like California, northern Florida, and Coast Guard stations. But there were obstacles with regard to being one of two active duty service members with a beard at the time (the other being Chaplain Major Mendy Stern).

Despite all the challenges I would face in the Navy, I went through numerous hoops trying to go that route. Rabbi Sanford Dresin, the military endorser of Aleph, asked if I wanted to fight the no-beard rule. I could be the very first bearded chaplain in the Navy, and the second overall active-duty military chaplain with a beard. But I told him that I didn’t want to fight it—I didn’t need to be the first, I just wanted to serve my country.

At that point, Rabbi Dresin and some of my friends suggested that the Army would be a practical option and a better fit because of the things I enjoy, such as exploring primitive nature settings. But the main reason the Army appealed to me was because of what we call unit ministry, where Army chaplains are embedded into their unit and are truly part of things. In the Army, the unit becomes your extended family—chaplains included. I wanted to be the kind of chaplain that is closely attached to my unit in the field. I would say that this has fit really well with my affinity for nature and my adventurous spirit. We crawl through the mud together, we climb… you name it, we do it.

Like I said, it’s been a journey—a really good one. And I look forward to whatever comes next for my Army chaplain adventures.

Originally published in the Chanukah 2023 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.