More than 100 different religious denominations are currently represented among the ranks of the American military – evidence of the widely diverse profile of American society. Today, religious pluralism is considered to be a blessing, but that wasn’t always the case. It was only following World War I that the different branches of service allowed chaplains to wear insignia other than the Christian cross, and there was authorization to use the Star of David (as well as the Latin Cross) in marking soldiers’ graves.
A new trend in religious pluralism in America's armed forces has become evident in recent years, as the policy regarding one's appearance in uniform becomes more flexible. Recently, the army announced that it would allow men to keep their beards for religious reasons, and the same with turbans for Sikh men, hijabs for Muslim female soldiers and kippot for Jews. The shift has been slow and has been driven by several lawsuits, one of which was filed by Rabbi Mendy Stern from Chabad, and helped open the door for bearded men of all faiths.
One of the first beneficiaries of the new policy is Rabbi Michael (Michoel) Harari, 37, who has served for about two years as chaplain of an elite army combat battalion. At present he lives with his wife and their six children at the Joint Base Lewis-McCord, outside Tacoma, Washington.
In a conversation with Haaretz, Harari, who is also affiliated with Chabad, offers a glimpse into Jewish life today on a U.S. military base. He himself, an athletic combat-rabbi, can also be said to defy an Israeli’s stereotype of the American Jewish male.
From my acquaintance with the Israel Defense Forces, every unit has its own mythology, a founding narrative used to recruit and inspire its soldiers. Is there a formative story for the Chaplain Corps?
“When I was in chaplaincy school, I read a book called ‘Sea of Glory,’ which told a fictional version of the incredible tale of the sinking of the troop transport ship Dorchester, in 1943. The ship, which was carrying hundreds of troops, was on a mission during World War II, and on board there were four chaplains – two Protestants, one Catholic and one rabbi. A German U-boat fired a number of torpedoes at the vessel, which was hit and started to go down. When the rabbi saw that there were young soldiers who didn’t have life jackets, he and the other chaplains took off their own life jackets and gave them away.
“The book was written by a relative of one of the chaplains, and at the end he describes three of the four men standing arm-in-arm as the ship was sinking into the ocean, singing I don’t know what, maybe ‘Sh’ma Yisrael.’ That was people’s last image them, standing together, united in doing what they needed to do: saving others.”
It’s almost like the stories of martyrs in Jewish religious tradition, but very American and with an interfaith message. What does this mean for you as a rabbi?
“Growing up in a very Jewish community, in Miami-Dade County, in Florida, most of those in my surroundings were for a long time other observant Jews, yeshiva students, rabbis. It’s true that where I lived, in Surfside, wasn’t exactly Mea She’arim or New York [in terms of the Chabad way of life], but our surroundings were Jewish, and when I saw someone wearing a kippa, I felt very good. So my world was a little bit narrow, and so to see or read about other rabbis who were able to connect with other people, to help people of any faith, of all faiths – it was definitely moving. It even helped me understand the Lubavitcher Rebbe better.”
How so? You grew up in Chabad, and when you enlisted in the army you were already a Chabad rabbi and shaliah [emissary].
“You might think: If he’s a Chabad rabbi, he must be closed-minded, must keep his wife locked up in the kitchen. But we learn stories about the Rebbe, about how influential and helpful he was, to everyone. When someone came into his office, and when he saw something that he could fix, he didn’t say first: Excuse me, are you Jewish? [His approach was:] Whoever you are, if you’re coming to me, I will help. It is a very interesting paradigm in this environment, where you meet and work with a lot of good people, and with whom you can do a lot of good things, if you work together.
“This is a model that I think can work very well for every Chabad rabbi. If the Rebbe was able to spend his time on someone just because they needed help, why should we shortchange the world, and say that other people’s problems are their problems, let them go to their priest?”
A door is opened
The guidelines of the U.S. military promise “free expression of faith and/or religious practice for all assigned personnel.” But turbans, hijabs and beards like yours were never considered to be legitimate expressions until people challenged the army in court. You were one of the first beneficiaries of the change.
“There is more diversity, and I believe it’s for the best. My friend Rabbi Mendy Stern, who’s also an army chaplain, was the one who in 2011 opened the door for me and for others, not only Jews, with his lawsuit. What Mendy said, basically, was that the military policy was discriminatory and that we, men with beards, are still mission-capable. He also told the court how, for religious Jews, and especially in Chabad, not having a beard is not an option. [Stern’s case resulted in a settlement in his favor, but several years later, the army revised its general policy.] He is the first active-duty soldier in the military, in any branch, with a beard, under what is, today, a new policy. I am the second such rabbi.”
Before that change, you would have had to choose between the uniform and a beard. What would you choose if you had to?
“Without the change in policy, we would have been required to shave, and for me as a Chabad Hasid, this would be out of the question. Without the beard, it would have been impossible for me to serve. I did not act before the change of policy about beards.”
What was a young rabbi doing enlisting in the army in the first place?
“The military is something I was always thinking about. My grandfather served. He volunteered in 1942 after Pearl Harbor, and stayed in service till 1974. My father, who grew up in Egypt and moved to America, was drafted and served during the Vietnam War. My uncles also served and my brother-in-law is, today, a Marine aviator. I went the yeshiva route; still, it’s something that I always wanted to do myself, but I waited to see what happened with Mendy Stern’s lawsuit. When he succeeded, it opened the door for us.
“In 2005, I started going the route of the navy. I wanted to be a chaplain, and the navy seemed like the place for me. I’m a beach boy. I love to be at sea, I love to fish, I love the ocean. But it didn’t work out with the navy, and after consulting with my sponsors and friends from Chabad, I concluded that the army would be more suitable.”
What’s the difference? Aren’t you serving as a rabbi, regardless of what branch you’re in?
“In the navy, as a rabbi, you have a shul and an office or meeting place, and the soldiers come to you. The army is a lot more hands-on, which means you’re in the field with your soldiers. When they’re hiking, or climbing, or jumping out of planes in the paratrooper units – you are with them. Whatever they do, an army chaplain will do with them, including jumping. In the navy and the air force, it’s more like a standard rabbinate.”
Is the act of enlisting as a rabbi different than with other military professions?
“No, in America they always check you out; they look up your background and do their homework. You have to pass an academic test, and then a physical aptitude test – they check your running, your pull-ups, your push-ups, and things like that, and that defines the type of units you could fit in with, based on your score.
“Once you’ve been accepted, you set a date with a senior officer, colonel or above, and they swear you in. You take an oath, in which you affirm to uphold the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic, and say that you’re going to support the president and your country. In 2017, I took the oath.
“Once you’re in, you are sent for four months of basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The next step is for three types of professionals – chaplains, lawyers and doctors. I did that course with Protestant, Catholic, Muslim officers, all of us together. We go to an officers leadership course together, also in Fort Jackson, at the end of which you get attached to a unit and base, somewhere in the world, with your family.”
And now you’re attached to Apache attack helicopters. Tell me about your unit.
“I’m the rabbi of the 1st Battalion of the 229th Aviation Regiment. It is a highly decorated unit, well known from both World War II and Vietnam. It’s an attack team that gets attached to any forward units with the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. That’s our platform for providing support for ground troops. Everyone trains like infantry, though we have line units and we have pilots. We have something like 800 people, including ground troops, pilots, fuelers, mechanics, maintenance or what have you.” As chaplain, he may be deployed with U.S. Army forces on missions abroad, he says.
What’s the function of the chaplain?
“The chaplain does anything that the soldier does – except that in the U.S. Army, we’re noncombatants. So we’re not meant to take offensive positions or attack targets. As part of the command staff, we’re there to support our unit, but whatever our soldiers do – if they’re training in techniques to evade the enemy, or digging foxholes, doing surveillance and things like that – we have to be nested within the unit, and not be a burden or slow it down.
“During routine periods, we are there to provide support for everyone who’s on the ground, to offer the commander religious counsel and provide support for the soldiers emotionally, mentally, morally. All 800 soldiers have free access to your office. People tell you about personal issues that are bothering them.”
What’s the philosophy behind that, and why would a non-Jew choose to consult a Jewish rabbi? There must be a military psychologist on the base.
“The military is interested in mission readiness. If you’re not squared away at home, how great a warrior could you be? The goal is to ensure that soldiers are well cared for, and that they’re coming from a good, supportive place. They know that anything that happens within our environment is kept completely confidential. Even in court, I’m not allowed to disclose anything that they speak to me about. Some might go to a therapist – which I am not – but others will come to me because, as a chaplain, you are ‘boots on the ground’ with your soldiers, you do PT [physical training] with them, you exercise with them. So they know you, and also the word may have gotten around a bit that I have been able to help soldiers.”
What else is under your responsibility?
“If there is something unclear about soldiers’ rights regarding holidays, or fasting on Yom Kippur – we are there. During holidays, the Jewish soldiers come to our minyanim [prayer services], and soldiers come to the sukkah that I make.
“My main job is as a battalion chaplain, and the second hat I wear is that of 'post' rabbi – for all the Jews on the base, including those in the air force. I run all the Jewish happenings on the base, which has 40,000 people. I lead minyanim on Shabbat and holidays, and classes, and things like that.”
How many soldiers out of those 40,000 identify as Jews?
“Those who have registered, which means they identify and want to be involved, are 180 service members, plus their families. There are a lot more who choose not to be identified as Jews.
And who are they? I suppose there are very few observant people like you, if any.
“You know, some soldiers need kosher food, others would consider doing a single mitzvah once in a while a huge thing, and for others it’s about knowledge and education – they want to learn something about our tradition or about what the Torah has to say. For many Jewish soldiers I meet here, when they’re home they might not be involved at all, but when you are deployed in the field or in the desert, when you’re in different environments, it’s an amazing thing to see that some people ask for kosher food, or come to shake the lulav or put on tefillin.
“It’s a beautiful opportunity that I have, to connect the dots between them and boreh ha’olam [the creator of the universe]. It works like anywhere else that we have an opportunity to bring soldiers closer to Judaism, to help them learn, to be there for the things that they need spiritually.”
‘Missing an imam’
In your main hat, as battalion chaplain, your job is to provide religious support for people of all faiths and to ensure every soldier’s freedom of religious expression, whether they be Catholic, or Buddhist or Muslim. How does it actually work?
“I’m there to advise the commander. If we’re going to be moving troops on a certain date, it’s my responsibility to check the calendars and tell them if it is scheduled to take place during a particular holiday, or Ramadan ... and if and how will that affect the mission. We have to keep track for the commander of what he is probably not going to be tracking himself.”
How much do you need to know about other religions?
“I need to know the basic things, but commanders don’t usually call me up and say: Chaplain, my Buddhist soldier is saying that he hasn’t been allowed to follow his religious customs. If they are willing, I will send them to the Buddhist chaplain, the same way that [another] chaplain would tell them to call Rabbi Harari in case of a question about kashrut. Because we’re in a very large base, we have chaplains from many religions, and this makes it easy. Although right now, we’re missing an imam.”
What about Reform and Conservative Jewish chaplains? I guess the majority of Jews, and their chaplains, are from those denominations. Is the military aware of the differences, and the occasional tensions, between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox Judaism?
“I’m the only rabbi on the base, representing the Jewish community, and I don’t usually get to work with other rabbis. Everyone has their own 'flavor,' concerning what they do, and mine is a religious Chabad flavor, because that’s what I learned. As a chaplain in the army, no one asks you to be something or someone that you’re not, so every rabbi would do his own thing with respect to others.”
What about differing approaches to intermarriage, or the attitude toward Israel or other issues in dispute within the U.S. Jewish community? How much of this enters the military base?
“I believe the challenge is everywhere, and that everything that happens in the world also happens in the army. We have soldiers from every walk of life, every background, and we’re in one unit together – so if there’s something going on in the world, we see it here as well. Maybe in the army it’s a little easier [than in nonmilitary areas of life], because Jews there want to connect with other Jews. People feel it’s their background, their heritage. Everyone is welcome, even if they’re not halakhically Jewish.
“I look at it the way Rabbi Hillel did. You know, people who wanted to come closer to the emet, the truth – if they went to Rabbi Shammai, they were told by Shammai to get lost. But Hillel the Elder said to them: If you really want to learn then come, ask a question, come see what Shabbat is. It’s not that we’re there to convert people, or whatever, but if you actually want to go further and become Jewish? We will give you the number of the Orthodox rabbinate in Seattle; you can get in touch with them if you want to proceed further.
“Of course there are many rabbis from all denominations in the military, but none of us is doing giyurim [conversions]. Of course on the personal level, I would not agree with a Reform rabbi if he or she says it’s okay to officiate at the chuppah of a Jew and non-Jew.”
Your service in the army has a broader American Jewish context. Chabad is everywhere today, in all 50 states, many times in very remote places, and now also in the military. Do you feel part of that project? Are you still a Chabad shaliah like any other shaliah?
“There are very few of us Chabad rabbis who are in active duty, meaning that this is actually our life. And I’m not sure how many of my friends in Chabad actually understand what we do – that we’re out there every morning at 5 A.M. doing PT and then going to our battalion, and going through war games, and then being deployed and being sent overseas.
“We have a lot in common with a Chabad family that goes to some place in Siberia or Uganda. It’s difficult family-wise for us, we are the only observant family out here; there aren’t other peers or friends living the same life you are, you’re kind of on your own. And we are homeschooling our children, and kosher food is not easy to get.
“At the beginning of the year, I had a big shipment of frozen meat sent out, which is sufficient for a few months. Once a month, we go to a nearby farm and milk goats. We freeze it. But that’s only for my family, because other families here, even those who keep kosher, are not as strict as to require Halav Israel [milk extracted under strict rabbinical supervision].
“But within the military, our support system is a whole different thing. The army takes care or our families, there is a whole system, and my community is probably the safest Chabad community in the world, because it’s located inside an army base.”
Muscular vs. Exiled Jew
You said before that you wanted to be training and jumping with the other combat soldiers. The fact that you are a combat rabbi, and athletic, conveys something very strong, and I say it positively – as if you were a new, rabbinical version of Max Nordau’s Muscular Jew, antithesis of the stereotype of the Exile Jew.
“Our personas as army rabbis may look different from the Jewish stereotype of 150 years ago. But when you think about it, as far back as we go, Bnei Yisrael always stood up for their territories – the Maccabees stood up against their oppressors, and of course in the State of Israel. Israel was not founded by weak people. Years ago, I was living in Ukraine. There is a big Chabad center in Dnepropetrovsk province, and I was running the orphanage with a friend of mine. I wanted to practice wrestling, something that I was always involved in. I tried out for the local wrestling team and made it, so two or three times a week I would go there.
“There was an old guy, I didn’t know he was Jewish, who used to come to watch matches. One day he approached to me and said: You don’t know what it does to me, having grown up in Ukraine and seeing, for years, Jews being the target, and now to see you fighting with these people. Even though it’s a sport, it makes me feel good seeing you leave this building wearing a head covering and the tzitzit [ritual fringes].
“So giving up that image is not a negative thing. Maybe I learned it from my father, who grew up in Egypt, or from my grandparents: I believe that as Jews, it’s important for us to be enabled. And it is totally in line with the Torah to be strong and to be capable and to be able to take care of yourself and those around you. If you’re given that ability – use it and help others with it.”
So now you’re an officer in the U.S. Army, not a Jewish force. What does it mean to you to be part of it?
“Simple: I’m an American patriot. As I said, almost everyone in my family has served and had their hand in – and it says something about the sense of solidarity and being part of America. There are many Jews in the armed forces, and it also says something positive about us as Jews in general ... Even during the Civil War, Jews served, and on both sides.
“But all and all ... it’s difficult to find anywhere in the world such a diversity of backgrounds as exists in the military. Forget religion, but just upbringing and where our people were born. Some of my fellow servicemen were born with a silver spoon in their mouth: They’re very well-to-do and went to the best universities, and others were homeless before they came to the military. So to have someone from a rich, aristocratic northeastern U.S. background, right next to someone from inner-city Chicago – it’s something you don’t often see. The mix of all of us working together effectively and efficiently – I believe that’s one of the things that makes the army strong.
“Furthermore, I feel that it’s a privilege to be able to serve my country, and not only as a rabbi. When I was accepted for active duty military service, the recruiter said to me, ‘Congratulations, you are part of less than 1 percent of the nation.’ I was also thinking of how Jews were always less than 1 percent of the nation. Now it’s something that we stand up to do, with free choice, this is what we like to do: to support those who fight our wars, and keep our country safe. I’m their rabbi. I’m one of them. I’m one of us.”
Journalist Yair Ettinger is currently a fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute in New York. A Hebrew version of this article will be published on their blog.