Born into a Chabad Lubavitch family, Rabbi Menachem Stern grew up with one ambition in life: to help people.
“Throughout my life I have pursued this goal by engaging in many different activities, ranging from visiting Jewish inmates in prisons to visiting the sick in hospitals and nursing homes,” he wrote in a short essay.
When he spotted an ad in August 2008 for military chaplains, Rabbi Stern said, “I knew I had found my calling.”
Rabbi Stern, 28, of Brooklyn, said he applied for a commission and “went through all the hoops for them. I had an interview with a chaplain at West Point, the chief of chaplains and his staff, as well as a physical — the full rundown they give to every new recruit.”
Last July, he said he was informed that the Accession Board had approved him, and at one point “I actually got orders to appear. I received a letter saying that if I agreed to a commission, I should report for swearing-in.”
But he then received a phone call saying the letter had been mailed in error — he could not enlist because he wore a beard. Rabbi Stern said he requested a waiver of that regulation and has “been appealing since then.”
“For me, my beard is part of my religious garb,” he explained. “I don’t look for shortcuts. … By not trimming my beard, I show that I represent the unadulterated view of the holy Torah. While there would be ways around it, and many of these ways are kosher, keeping to the original version of the Torah is the only way we as members of the Chabad Lubavitch community believe a person should live.”
On Nov. 28, New York Sen. Charles Schumer sent the Pentagon a letter inquiring about the appeal. Two days later, he received a letter saying an inquiry had been initiated and that he would be “further advised as soon as information becomes available.”
Rabbi Stern said he has heard nothing.
Rabbi Sandy Dresin, executive director of chaplains at the Aleph Institute in Surfside, Fla., which certifies Jewish chaplains for the military, said he has been pressing the Army to grant Rabbi Stern the waiver.
“The Army chaplaincy branch is not opposed to him having a beard, but the policy is made by the Army’s chief of personnel in concert with the chief of staff of the Army,” Rabbi Dresin said.
The regulation, which Rabbi Stern said was enacted in the 1980s, might at one time have been designed for operational purposes — such as the need for tight-fitting gas masks. But Rabbi Dresin said there are “some active duty Army [personnel] who have beards and “work undercover to blend into the population in Afghanistan.”
“We are not asking them to change the regulation, but rather to make a case-by-case waiver based on the needs of the military,” Rabbi Dresin said. “They need Jewish chaplains, and we are offering them.”
He pointed out that there are only eight Jewish chaplains in the Army now, a figure he said would “double within a year” if the Army accepted bearded Jewish chaplains.
“The Navy is also short and the Air Force also needs more” Jewish chaplains, Rabbi Dresin said.
“We had no rabbi in Iraq for Chanukah because the rabbi there was called back for personal reasons and another rabbi who would have covered for him left because of a death in the family,” he continued. “Major installations around the world are going uncovered. There is only one [Jewish chaplain] right now in all of Europe.”
During the Vietnam War, Rabbi Dresin said, there were “always three or four rabbis in the country during the height of the conflict. Now in Iraq, there is one at the most. … Our mission is to serve Jewish personnel in uniform, and I estimate that there are 4,000 Jews in the Army alone.”
“We have a large number of young, selfless rabbis who would come to active duty as long as the beard regulation is waived,” Rabbi Dresin said, referring to Chabad Lubavitch rabbis who serve in more than 70 countries.
“They are not fearful of going to war zones, because they are so dedicated and committed to reaching out to all Jews,” he added.
Rabbi Stern pointed out that he “grew up with the attitude that we have to go out into the world and help people. The job of a rabbi is to serve not only Jews. I served as an EMT in the town of Liberty.”
Waivers for beards are being granted, Rabbi Dresin observed. He said that recently an exemption was granted to a Sikh and to a Muslim, both of whom decided to grow beards while they were in the military.
Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman, said Monday that he was unable to find any record that Rabbi Stern had requested a waiver.
Rabbi Stern said he has a May 15, 2009, e-mail from the chief of chaplains office “saying the director of personnel for the chaplains corps would contact me.”
Asked about the recent waivers that had been granted for beards, Tallman said he understood those men were already on active duty but that Rabbi Stern “has applied but is not yet in.”
But Marc Stern, co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said that although the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the military’s “insistence on uniformity,” he questions whether it would prevail in this case.
“Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government has to show a compelling interest in order to overcome the statute’s presumption of making an accommodation for religious freedom,” he said.
In addition, Stern, who said his organization has not been asked to intervene in this case, said it should make no difference whether the beard waiver was granted to men already in the Army.
“The government’s interest is one of uniformity,” he said. “They will have a hard time maintaining the rule because they have already made exceptions.” n