U.S. NAVY JEWISH CHAPLAIN CORPS SOFT EPAULETS

While the United States Navy Chaplin Corps decision to include Chaplains from faiths other than Protestant and Catholic Christianity was laudable and consistent with our country’s Constitution, it did not address the issue of recruiting enough Chaplains from smaller faith groups such as Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism to accomodate Sailors from those backgrounds.

In the case of Judaism, for example, the resignation of the Navy’s first Jewish Chaplain in 1919 was followed by a dozen-year stretch where there were no Rabbis commissioned as Chaplains. And a little over 90 years later, the U.S. Military was still finding it difficult to find Rabbis willing to serve in the Chaplain Corps of the various branches of the Armed Forces. Only nine Chaplains in the Army’s Chaplain Corps were rabbis in 2011, and the total for all branches stood at just thirty-seven. At that time, there were between 10,000 and 15,000 military personnel of the Jewish faith on active duty. Three years later, in 2014, only nine of the Navy’s nearly 800 Chaplains were Jewish.

Although there is no single reason why the Navy and other branches have difficulty recruiting Rabbis to serve as Chaplains, for several decades Rabbis from certain branches of Judaism ran into a roadblock because of military regulations regarding facial hair. In 1977, the U.S. Army Reserve gave Rabbi Jacob Goldstein a special exemption allowing him to keep his beard—but that allowance was predicated on Goldstein’s continued adherence to a Hasidic group that required him to keep a beard. It would the only exemption granted by the Army for more than thirty years.

In December, 2011, two years after he was initially approved for an Army Chaplaincy, Rabbi Menachem Stern was given an exemption similar to the one Goldstein had received. A January, 2014 Department of Defense directive further opened the door for bearded Jewish Chaplains by specifying that the only way the Navy or any other branch of the U.S. Armed Forces can deny a member from exercising “sincerely held beliefs” is if it has an adverse impact on a unit’s readiness, cohesion, and discipline. The directive also allows Sailors and Soldiers of other faiths, such as Sikh Hinduism, to keep their beards in accordance with their faiths.

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