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By: LT Levi Ceitlin, CHC, USN

My path to chaplaincy was not an obvious one. Joining the military was not even on my radar until I was nearing graduation from rabbinical ordination. The career path I envisioned was one in which I could use my skills in caring for and helping people. I originally considered psychology or social work, but after a lot of careful research and guidance, I came across chaplaincy. When I found chaplaincy, everything clicked and fell in place: Chaplaincy would give me the ability to combine my rabbinic ordination with my desire to help others, while spreading Judaism to those in need.

I soon learned that it would also pose as many questions as it solved, if not more—a lot more.

For starters, what type of chaplaincy should I choose? After researching hospital, prison, and military chaplaincies, I found that military chaplaincy spoke to me the most. My friend, Army Chaplain (MAJ) Mendy Stern, was the first person I spoke to about military chaplaincy. Having dual citizenship with Canada and the United States, I first had to consider which military to join. I consulted with chaplains in both militaries, and with Aleph. The consensus was that there is a higher demand for rabbis in the American military. The next question was which branch to join, and to answer that, my approach was similar: Wherever I felt the need was greater was where I wanted to be. Since the Navy had (and still has) the fewest Jewish chaplains among all the branches, that was where I went.

Of course, I could not do my chaplaincy work without my wife, Chaya Sara. The support I’ve received from her has been amazing. Although I originally made the decision to serve when I was still single, I didn’t apply to the military until after I was married. I’ve had many people ask me about joining the military as a chaplain. The first thing I tell them is, “Have you talked to your significant other? What do they have to say about it?” It is impossible to be successful without the support of your spouse. Ironically, I wasn’t as strategic as I recommend others should be. On our second date (or our fourth date, if you ask Chaya Sara), I said to my future wife, “I’m joining the military. Are you in or out?” Fortunately for me, she was in, so here I am. But I don’t suggest that others go about it that way!

I happen to be the first—and currently only—bearded chaplain in the Navy. After I applied in September 2014, it took five years until I was officially sworn in, due to the difficulties in getting a beard waiver. I am happy to report that there are a few more potential Jewish chaplains who have received their beard waivers and will be able to join the Navy soon. I am proud to have paved the way for them, as well as for chaplains and sailors from other religions who have this requirement. The Navy is looking for more chaplains, and this is one barrier that is being slowly removed.

I am currently stationed at NSA Bahrain. I serve as a chaplain for a transregional mine-countermeasures task force. The task force is made up of four mine-hunting ships, a helicopter squadron, EOD platoon, and unmanned unit. The ships we use are made out of wood, as opposed to steel, because some mines are designed to explode when coming in contact with metal. We use our equipment to look for mines underwater, and when we come across an item of interest, we verify that it really is a mine and not something else. Occasionally, we come across false positives, such as broken refrigerators or water heaters that have been quietly discarded by private citizens. When we do find something, we either retrieve and examine it, or if necessary blow it up with a small charge.

Considering that Bahrain is an island in the Arabian Gulf just east of the Strait of Hormuz, it would not take much for someone to close the strait with a few strategic mines. Our mission is to ensure the safety of the ships in the region and the freedom of navigation.

Bahrain’s Jewish history dates back to the Talmudic era, when it was a thriving Jewish community. Currently, Bahrain has the only synagogue building in the entire gulf. It was built in the 1920s or 30s. At that time, the community did not have its own rabbi; instead, a rabbi would periodically visit from Iraq or Syria and show the people what to do. Shortly after Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, the synagogue was attacked and ransacked. Following that, a large percentage of the Jewish population escaped to Israel. In the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, fearing that more attacks were coming, another wave of Jews left and went to Israel. The few remaining Jews have kept things going since then. There is a real need for rabbinic leadership as the Jewish presence is small but strong in its own right. Until a few months ago, I was the only rabbi in the area—the next closest rabbi being in Dubai.

This whole experience, though meaningful, has not been easy with my family living so far away in California. I am stationed 8,000 miles from them with an 11-hour (soon to be 10-hour, since Bahrain doesn’t have Daylight Saving) time difference. But it does create some unique opportunities. For the High Holidays this year, my family visited me in Bahrain and even came aboard my ship. They were very excited to do the tashlich ceremony with me from the deck. For the second half of Sukkot, we went to Israel, which is not far away. That trip was a memorable experience for which I am grateful.

While the physical separation is difficult for my kids, it’s also a great opportunity to expand their world. How many children can say they’ve been to Bahrain?! G-d willing they will be back or Pesach, and perhaps we will visit another country such as Egypt or Dubai. So despite the challenges of being apart, my family and I have enjoyed exploring when we can, increasing our cultural awareness and sensitivity.

While in Bahrain, I’ve made some interesting connections. For starters, I’ve worked closely with the chief rabbi of the Israeli Navy. For High Holiday services, the Israeli ambassador and Jewish American ambassador joined us. On Chanukah, we welcomed three ambassadors from Morocco, South Korea, and the Philippines, plus three deputy ambassadors from America, France, and India. In November 2022, we held an interfaith panel with an American rabbi, a IDF rabbi, a Christian minister, and an academic. They talked about the effects of the Abraham Accords in the region. The panel encouraged open dialogue between the three Abrahamic faiths, and the feedback we got afterward was extremely positive.

In Bahrain, you never know what the next day will bring. This past February, an exciting new development occurred when I reached out to the commissary to ask if they would consider carrying kosher wine, and they agreed. You can now purchase kosher wine here. Next, we are going to work on getting kosher meat, which is a little more complicated, but I am hopeful that it will be possible.

I was originally drawn to the chaplaincy for the simple reason that I like helping people. I also enjoy exploring new places and meeting different kinds of people, and I’ve certainly found that in Bahrain. I have thoroughly enjoyed my military experience, and I can’t wait to see what the next stage will bring.

Originally published in the Pesach 5783 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.