Mitchell Geller was an unlikely candidate to be a chaplain; and had never, ever, envisioned an armed forces career. On the contrary, he was a regular, ordinary rabbinical student at Yeshiva University when the U.S. military introduced a lottery in 1951 to supply chaplains for the armed services. Geller’s selective service fell on 18 – usually an auspicious number – but in this instance it meant an unavoidable stint in the services.
Not especially suffused with a rush of patriotic fervor, Geller – like many Jewish conscripted young men – sought a way out. As he weighed his very limited options, he wished to invoke spiritual insight and blessing. Accordingly, he turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe as how to best avert the governmental decree. The Rebbe, however, looked at matters differently, and advised him to serve the nation.
Legally and rabbinically, Geller’s fate was now sealed. He was headed for the armed services; his sole volition would be in selecting which branch. Hailing from Houston, and his grandfather from Galveston, his natural inclination, in sync with his geographic background, was the Navy.
Alas, he was even deprived of this decision. Then, as now, the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) was in charge of supplying the military with chaplains to accommodate Jewish recruits. The decision of which branch to furnish was ultimately theirs.
The JWB’s Rabbi Goldberg (Reform) was in charge of the Navy chaplaincy and under his tenure he had kept the Navy Orthodoxrhein. Although he was orthodox about this policy, he couched his rejection on a seemingly “objective” criterion.
Geller, who wore eyeglasses, was dubbed impaired by Goldberg. And he added, “You have vision, but no sight.” It wasn’t clear if he was being medical or philosophical, but for good measure he threw in, “The Navy will never take you or anyone who isn’t 20-20.”
The very notion of the Navy being spectacle-free in the 1950s was preposterous, but it was clear that the JWB, as far as the Navy was concerned, would not be considering Michell Geller. What other options were there? As Geller had no interest in the Army, he applied for the Air Force, which apparently did not have optical limitations. Indeed, the position of the JWB representative manning the Air Force desk was, “If you have eyes; we’ll take you.”
And indeed, they did. After induction Rabbi Geller was sent to chaplaincy school in Fort Slocum, N.Y., for six weeks. After this he was deployed at the Barksdale Air Force base near Shreveport, La.
This was quite an adjustment for the Gellers, who were wed in the interim between the lottery and induction. They quickly found out that life on an Air Force base was not a honeymoon nor in any way similar to the lifestyle dominant in religious neighborhoods.
Militarily, Mitchell started off his new posting on the wrong foot when he neglected to salute the passing car of the base commander, as is Air Force protocol. This is not the kind of offense for which you get a ticket in the mail.
An irate commander emerged from the car and demanded that the non-compliant soldier identify himself.
“Freshly-arrived Chaplain Geller,” the smiling rookie replied, unaware that he had committed the slightest faux pas. He stretched out his hand, totally disarming the hardened commander. “Oh,” the commander mused, “you’re my new chappy!”
Chappy Geller did fine in the Air Force, actually enjoying his “first-class” duty for 21 months. After this period Rabbi Geller cycled out of active duty and into the Reserves.
In 1966 Rabbi Geller’s father passed away, and after the sheloshim period of mourning he did not entirely shave off his beard and maintained a goatee. Other than the change in facial hair, nothing else was altered in Chaplain Geller’s routine and regimen. At the time, his Reserve Duty consisted of going into the Air Force every other month for two days of training.
Geller wore the goatee for seven full years without incident until one day the base chaplain informed him, “Your beard is against regulations; it’s gotta come off.”
Generally mild-manned, Chaplain Geller was not willing to comply on this issue. By this point the beard, which was initiated out of mourning for his father and was becoming for a Jewish chaplain, had been a non-issue for too long. Something that was accepted, tolerated and approved for nearly a decade, could not just morph one day into the verboten zone.
The base chaplain, however, with the full weight of the United Sates Air Force behind him, saw the matter otherwise. Geller was not conforming with Air Force regulations and simultaneously was disobeying an order. Thus, he was presented with the following choice, “Either you go to the barber shop or you go to jail.”
To be continued.
Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!
Rabbi Hanoch Teller