By Chaplain , Lt Col Michael Bram, USAF
“If you told me then that THIS is what I’d be doing, I’d have called you a liar to your face.” That’s always been my response when people ask me if I’d always wanted to be a military chaplain. As long as I can remember I’d only wanted to be one thing: an astronaut. (There was a period when I wanted to be Bob Barker, but that job was already taken.) As a kid I spent a lot of time learning math and science and even attended Space Camp numerous times. In college I majored in astrophysics and joined Air Force ROTC, all to further my plan to be an astronaut. But, as the Yiddish proverb goes, “Man plans and God laughs.” God had other plans for me.
When an Air Force Cadet is in their junior year of college they fill out a “dream sheet” with all their hopes and dreams for their Air Force career. My first three choices of jobs were in physics and engineering. However, unbeknownst to me, if certain jobs appear anywhere on your dream sheet, that’s the job you’ll get. My fourth choice was a job then called “Space and Missiles,” and that’s what I got. (Space is no longer the responsibility of the Air Force, so all that’s left is Missiles.)
After training I ended up as an ICBM Operations Crew Member, more commonly called a Missileer. If you’ve ever seen the first ten minutes of the movie War Games, that’s what I used to do. It’s a lonely job, just you and your partner, locked in an underground bunker for 24 hours at a time. I spent 1,195 days in Minot, North Dakota. As we all know, Jewish Chaplains are in short supply and Minot did not merit to receive one. We had many fine Christian Chaplains who went to great efforts to meet my needs, but my lack of education and the 24/7 nature of my job made it difficult for me to advocate for my own needs and therefore hard for those chaplains to assist me. I felt very alone and helpless as the path of my spiritual journey became clearer, but I could not get there on my own.
The plus side is, unless nuclear war actually happens—I was on duty on 9/11, now that was a close call—there’s a lot of down time. Some fill that down time with TV or video games, some spend time working on advanced degrees, and others do a lot of reading. While I did all of those things, when I wasn’t monitoring/operating missiles I spent the bulk of that time reading. I was already in the early stages of my journey from Reform Judaism to Orthodoxy (which is an entirely separate story) and having time to read was an opportunity to grow in Torah while I was in the spiritual exile of North Dakota. (At the time there wasn’t even a Chabad House in the state.) A couple of Jewish Chaplains I had come in contact with gave me lists of books to read, and every payday my first stop was Amazon or an online Jewish bookstore to order my next round of reading material. For me, missile crew duty was almost like my personal time in yeshiva! My book knowledge increased greatly during those years, but my practical knowledge was woefully inadequate. I started to think I might need to leave the Air Force to spend some time in an actual yeshiva.
As lacking as my practical knowledge was, I ended up as one of the most educated Jews in both the town of Minot and the base. As such, I was drafted to serve as a Jewish Lay Leader. When I first arrived, there was a lay leader in place. He and another Airman were waiting for another interested Jew to show up and make a Jewish program. The three of us got together and started holding weekly Jewish services, which I led when I wasn’t engaged in an alert shift. At the time there was a synagogue building in Minot, built back when Minot was a “frontier community” and well populated with Jews. (Surprisingly, Minot also has an all-Jewish cemetery.) By the time I arrived, the synagogue was only used for the High Holidays, but the local residents gave us the keys and allowed us to use the building any time we wanted. (The building was later sold to a church and was then destroyed in a flood.) They even paid the utility bills, which was very generous, as heating can be quite expensive in Minot during the winter. We held services every Friday night and on holidays, had Passover Seders, built a Sukkah, and more. Our average attendance was somewhere between three and nine, but we were happy to have even that, as Minot can be a very lonely place. When the original lay leader PCSed about six months after I arrived, I took over as lay leader. Serving two years as lay leader of the base and the town was my first foray into Jewish communal leadership.
As I continued to grow in my Jewish journey, I became certain that my self education was not adequate to properly live an authentic Jewish life. I had decided to separate from active duty to enroll in a yeshiva as soon as my four-year ROTC commitment was up. This was not an easy decision, as I found a lot of satisfaction in serving my country, despite the fact that I was in what is still considered one of the worst jobs in the Air Force in one of the worst places in the Air Force. I have always had a well-defined sense of priorities and my need to immerse myself in Jewish life outweighed my desire to continue to serve
Until… One Friday night after services, a member of our community suggested that I should become a Rabbi and serve as a chaplain in the Air Force. Initially I dismissed the idea as ridiculous. I didn’t consider myself as “rabbi material.” (I often still feel this way.) But my lay leader job had become more important to me than my “real” job, and the idea of becoming a chaplain began to germinate in my head.I found myself thinking that service as a chaplain would combine the things that were most important to me: I could spend significant time in yeshiva, learn to live an authentic Jewish life, continue to serve my country, and help military Jews practice their faith. Additionally, my prospects of post Air Force employment weren’t great. I hadn’t used my astrophysics degree in four years and would need a significant refresher. Plus, my military job had no civilian equivalent. I was planning to learn in yeshiva for a year and had no plans after that. The prospect of continuing my service as a chaplain combined all the things that were important to me and gave me purpose for my professional life.
By the time I left active duty in 2003, I had a firm plan to stay in yeshiva long enough to earn semicha (rabbinical degree) and return to active duty as a chaplain, which I did in 2008 (although the road wasn’t quite as smooth as that short sentence may sound). But as difficult as my experience in Minot was, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think it makes me a better chaplain, better able to care for Airmen and Guardians in difficult circumstances, and I’m convinced that I would not have decided to become a chaplain without that experience. I met my wife while in yeshiva, so without the struggle of living in a Jewish wilderness, I would not have my faith, my family, or my service to my country—the things that are most important to me.
Originally published in the Tishrei 5783 Jewish-American Warrior