Skip to main content


In 2007, I saw a piece on the Evening News about the staggering and rising suicide rate among service members and veterans of the US military. As I watched in horror, I resolved to do something about this terrible situation.

To be honest, the Army Chaplaincy had already been on my mind for quite some time, but the idea of military service was an unrealistic dream: being strictly Torah observant, I didn’t consider it a possibility.

My interest was piqued while studying in Israel as a young rabbinical student. During that time, I had the pleasure of joining the legendary Lieutenant Meir Birnbaum, a WWII US Army veteran and camp liberator, for Shabbat meals, alongside his grandson who was my close friend and halacha study partner. Lieutenant Birnbaum’s eponymous book includes fascinating anecdotes from his wartime experience, as well as his relationship with the equally legendary Chaplain Herschel Shachter.

Over time, my interest in the Army Chaplaincy remained, but I had very little understanding of its reality. I actually gained a lot of perspective on Army chaplaincy from the character Chaplain (Father) Francis Mulcahy, from the 1970s hit TV show M*A*S*H. Eventually, I came across a fantastic article online written by Army Chaplain Shlomo Shulman, in which he provided a glimpse of not only the environment but the potential to serve in a religious capacity in the United States Armed Forces. I was intrigued and excited. The idea of merging two of my passions, Jewish outreach and education with military service, seemed like the perfect vocation for me.

Although I was pretty sure that this is what I wanted to do, I didn’t know how to go about it. I asked a particular Chaplain at the time who was a LTC for guidance and he was very discouraging of my ambitions. This chaplain told me that the US military is not the place for Jewish outreach or education. I was undeterred. However in late summer of 2008, I was injured when I was struck by a vehicle on the street in Brooklyn NY. For about half a year I could hardly walk without assistance and I had injuries in my knees and back. At this point I was seeing the Army Chaplaincy more as a pipe dream than a reality due to my physical limitations. About two years later while vacationing in San Antonio TX, I met USAF Chaplain Rafael Berdugo. When he heard that I had considered the Army Chaplaincy at one point, he asked why I failed to pursue it. I explained to him about my injuries, and he responded with understanding. That conversation however, started me thinking and wondering why I had given up on that dream. Two years had passed, and I had physically recovered. It was time again to consider the idea of military service as a Chaplain. Because I had put the chaplaincy out of my mind for so long, I was now looking into PA schools and preparing to pursue an education to become a physician’s assistant. I did some research into the Army Chaplaincy, and it became very clear to me that this was not only a possibility for me but it’s where I belonged. It was not a very difficult decision to choose the Army Chaplaincy over PA school and 13 years later, I can say that I have absolutely no regrets.

The chaplain who tried to dissuade me from joining the Army Chaplaincy was completely wrong. It’s unfortunate for him that he missed such a great opportunity to impact Jewish Service Members throughout his decades long career. I have met Jewish Personnel who were able to experience Judaism for the first time in their lives. Many of them grew up knowing that they’re Jewish or found out that they were Jewish later in life and had no idea what it meant until they attended a service or program in places like Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Qatar, and even around the United States. I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to study with Jewish Service Members who found meaning in their Jewish identity and Jewish observance for the first time. I’ve been able to reach the hearts of service members who grew up in Jewish observant homes and communities who for one reason or another left. They are now willing to explore their faith on their own terms without shame or pressure.

I am proud to be called and referred to as “my Rabbi” by people of many different faith groups and no faith group at all. Soldiers are proud to introduce me to their families. As for many Soldiers I have served with, when in need of a chaplain they will only reach out to me because I’ve earned their trust. This includes both Jews and non-Jews, as well as Service Members who often avoid Chaplains. It’s a great accomplishment for a Chaplain when a Soldier reaches out on their own accord in a time of need. And it’s a whole other level of connection when Soldiers contact me to share good news in their lives, including military and civilian promotions, engagements, pregnancies, births, children’s accomplishments, etc. I am incredibly fortunate to have become a positive part of the lives of so many people whom I serve alongside.

Although there are parts of my job that are absolutely heart-rending, including casualty notifications and dignified transfer of remains, I want to be the one to do it. When I have to look into the eyes of grieving family members on the worst days of their lives and be a voice of comfort to them, there is no other place
I’d rather be.

Other elements of my military service, such as the horrid Army bureaucracy, have been incredibly frustrating, I will say that it is worth every bit of effort and frustration. The ministry I get to do is unparalleled. I can, without question, quantify my impact and contribution to the US military: the lives I have been fortunate to have saved, the countless people I’ve had the opportunity to help, and the policies I have been able to influence are all what continuously fuels my passion.

As for my Torah observance, my military service has strengthened me beyond what I experienced even in yeshiva. My yeshiva experience has prepared me to put my studies to practice. Because I am so far removed from the comforts and conveniences of routine religious observances, it requires strong commitment to maintain and grow in my observance. I have to plan, arrange, organize, explain and sometimes even go without in order to stay faithful to my strict standards of Torah observance. Shabbat, Yom Tov, davening times, kosher meals, and the like are not routine where I am. I am not deciding between a simple jelly donut on Chanukah, or a $12 gourmet donut topped with edible miniatures. I’m deciding whether I’m going to excuse myself from a mandatory event for religious accommodation or I’m going to walk anywhere between three and thirteen miles. I make sure that I’m not excusing myself from duties while others are held to a stricter standard. I also refuse to justify lenience in my Torah observance. Not only has my strict Torah observance not weakened, it has thrived in the military environment. My Torah observance has not created a nuisance or beckoned criticism among my peers, it has earned me the trust of others. When Soldiers, from leaders down to junior enlisted observe how unwavering I am in my commitment to my faith, they are encouraged that I am a man of integrity and that I can be trusted. Soldiers will often beg me to get into the vehicle in inclement weather on Saturday during my long walks in the wet and frigid cold or blistering heat. Soldiers are constantly checking their food items to see if it’s kosher so that I would have something to eat.

What I have learned over the years in uniform is that Torah observance does not have to be a contradiction to or a balance with military service. Whenever they are integrated hand in hand, you can thrive as a Jew and grow as a Soldier. One who makes excuses and compromises in one area, would probably make excuses and compromises in their civilian life as well.

I live in a world where I’m hardly understood. In the military, people try to understand me, yet they think that my Torah observance is restrictive. In my Jewish community and even in my family, people struggle to understand why I would give up my freedom and independence, restricting myself to the confined structure of military service. I believe that I have the best of both worlds. I’ve been blessed with great mentorship, both among Chaplains as well as Commanders. Hashem has put me in places at times that I was needed and I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to help and make a positive difference for individuals as well as entire formations.

However, it is very difficult when I need to be away from my children for extended periods of time. That is probably the hardest part for me. My children are strong and proud of my military service. They don’t like it when I’m away, but each on their own level understands the importance of my mission and what I am doing. I hope they grow up with pride and an appreciation for the selfless service of Hashem and his people.

Originally published in the Passover 2024 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.