One year after filing suit against the U.S. Army for refusing to allow him to enlist as a military chaplain unless he shaved his beard, Rabbi Menachem Stern is to be sworn-in this week — beard and all.
Rabbi Stern, 29, of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is to take the oath Friday in a ceremony in the Surfside, Fla., office of the Aleph Institute, an agency authorized by the Department of Defense to recruit, vet and endorse rabbis for the military chaplaincy.
“I’m ecstatic,” Rabbi Stern said. “It’s the ultimate feeling of — I don’t want to say a dream come true, but I’m answering the call and feeling it through and through.”
As a member of the Chabad Lubavitch community, Rabbi Stern said it was unthinkable that he would have to shave his beard to become an Army chaplain.
“For me, my beard is part of my religious garb,” he said. “By not trimming my beard, I show that I represent the unadulterated view of the holy Torah.”
Rabbi Stern had actually been informed in 2009 that he had been approved as an Army chaplain — only to be informed later that the letter had been sent in error because of an Army regulation against beards in the Army.
Rabbi Stern then requested a waiver, which went answered despite an inquiry from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Last December, Rabbi Stern filed suit. Settlement negotiations led to the Army’s decision to grant Rabbi Stern a waiver.
Nathan Lewin of Washington, D.C., the rabbi’s lawyer, said he had thought the Army would have sought a settlement earlier “given all the circumstances.”
He was referring to the fact that the military has made other exceptions for beards, most notably Jacob Goldstein, another Chabad Lubavitcher rabbi. Rabbi Goldstein began his military career in March 1977 and has served as an Army Reserve chaplain in many war zones, most recently in Afghanistan. Recently, exemptions were granted to a Sikh and a Muslim, both of whom decided to grow beards while on active duty.
“I guess it just took time for wiser heads to prevail and realize they were risking more than bearded chaplains,” Lewin said. “If we litigated this case, the Army’s no beard rule would have gone out the window.”
The settlement, he said, allows the Army to keep its anti-beard regulation and allow for exemptions. But he said the suit would not be withdrawn until the Army grants Rabbi Stern’s exemption, which should happen once he is sworn in Friday as a 1st Lieutenant in the Army Reserves.
“If the exemption is granted, the Army would be hard-pressed to deny it to any other chaplain who requests to wear a beard for religious reasons,” Lewin said. “It’s unconstitutional and it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that in the absence of a compelling government interest the government may not hinder religious observance. And it would be a hindrance to tell a chaplain he had to violate his religious convictions to become a chaplain in the Army.”
Although technically this exemption applies only to the Army, Lewin said he believes “it would be a strong precedent” for the other branches of the military.
Rabbi Goldstein said he hopes that “future chaplain rabbis who have beards will now not be deterred from serving.”
In the week since the settlement with Rabbi Stern was finalized, there have been about a dozen inquiries from rabbis expressing interest in becoming military chaplains, according to Rabbi Sandy Dresin, director of military programs for the Aleph Institute.
Many of the inquiries, he said, were from Chabad rabbis.
“This would be a wonderful opportunity for someone to do outreach and not have to focus on fundraising,” Rabbi Dresin said. “He could focus all his attention on outreach and all that goes with it. The military provides a good salary, good benefits and health care. If a young man enters when he’s in his 20s, at the end of 20 years he’s in his 40s and has a pension for life.”
There are currently 24 active duty Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military, nine of whom are in the Army, according to Rabbi Goldstein. He said there are about another 25 rabbis in the reserves.
Rabbi Dresin said the Army, Navy and Air Force “need more Jewish chaplains and could take another 10 right now.”
He noted that Rabbi Stern will be sworn into the reserves and is to begin a 12-week program in January at the Army chaplain school at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. He would then wait to be called to active duty.
Rabbi Stern, who is currently the president of operations at a holding company, said his employer has been aware of his desire to become an Army chaplain.
“I’ve been working here in the financial business before the [chaplaincy] opportunity arose,” he said. “My employers know and have been cooperating with me.”
He acknowledged that he would incur a substantial pay cut when he becomes an active duty Army chaplain, but he said there is “more to life than money.”
“The world stands on three things – Torah, prayer and good deeds,” he said. “It doesn’t say anything about money.”
He said that as an active duty Army chaplain his wife and three young daughters — 5, 3 and 1 — would all travel with him to his new post.
“My wife is very happy — and happy that it is coming to a good ending,” Rabbi Stern added.