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January 18, 2017 / 20 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘practice’

Jewish Practice In The U.S. Military (VII)

Friday, November 25th, 2016

In July 1981, Judge Aubrey E. Robinson granted Simcha Goldman a temporary restraining order preventing the Air Force from enforcing its headgear regulation. After a full hearing in September 1981, Robinson again ruled in favor of Goldman, enjoining the Air Force from enforcing its uniform regulations that prevented Goldman from wearing his yarmulke while in uniform. Robinson held that the regulations violated the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause and noted that the military failed to show any objective studies showing that religious exemptions would erode morale in the military.

It looked like Simcha Goldman had won his own private battle; the court upheld his right to wear a yarmulke in service and the Air Force did not challenge this ruling. Then suddenly things starting moving like a force of air.

The wing commander at the March Air Force base decided that there should be no exceptions to their regulations. This sentiment was conveyed to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) who apprised the Under Secretary of the Air Force. The Under Secretary walked out of his office in the Pentagon, headed left down the corridor a full 27 yards and then deposited the request upon the desk of the Secretary of the Air Force.

There wasn’t all that much further that this could climb other than out the door of the Pentagon and across the Potomac four miles to the White House. Prudency urgently demanded that some arresting sobriety be applied. Judge Robinson’s decision applied to Dr. Simcha Goldman only. The injunction addressed the petitioner exclusively and could impact on no other serviceperson.

If the Air Force were to launch an appeal and the court would reject it, the Goldman decision would then become the law for all. A betting man probably would have rejected such odds and consequences; but then again, a betting man is not a military man. Indeed.

The Secretary of the Air Force and the Secretary of Defense appealed the District Court decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The government in its appeal argued that wearing a yarmulke in the military was an obstacle to uniformity, esprit de corps and teamwork.

Goldman’s defense was that the military’s regulations violated the protection afforded in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

When may the government enforce a law that burdens an individual’s free exercise of their religious beliefs is a question that has been the source of fierce legal debate. Goldman’s counsel, Mr. Nathan Lewin, argued that Goldman’s privilege of free exercise in this case should be analyzed under the standard enunciated in the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision Sherbert v. Verner.

The Sherbert case started in 1957 when Adell Sherbert became a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a Christian denomination that teaches that Saturday, not Sunday, is the proper day for the Christian Sabbath, and accordingly Saturday is the day of rest. Two years after this affiliation, the workweek at the mill where she was employed in Spartanburg, South Carolina changed to six days; and Sherbert refused to work on Saturday causing her to be discharged from her employment.

Sherbert looked for Monday-to-Friday work with the other three mills in Spartanburg but failed to find suitable employment. She then filed for unemployment compensation benefits under the South Carolina Unemployment Compensation Act. The South Carolina Employment Security Commission denied the request claiming that her religious justification for refusing suitable Saturday work was not adequately compelling.

Judgment was based on the state law which provides that, to be eligible for benefits, a claimant must be “able to work and…available for work;” and a claimant is ineligible for benefits “if…he has failed, without good cause…to accept available suitable work when offered him by the employment office or the employer….” In other words, the Commission only provided unemployment benefits to people for whom work was not available, not to people who were unavailable to work.

Sherbert sued, claiming that the denial of benefits was an unconstitutional infringement of her First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The Court of Common Pleas for Spartanburg County rejected this claim and found for the Employment Security Commission (ESC). Sherbert then appealed this decision to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision by rejecting the appellant’s contention that the South Carolina statute abridged her right to the free exercise of her religion.

(To be continued)

Chodesh Tov – have a peasant month!

Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Jewish Practice In The U.S. Military (VI)

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

In April, 1981 Rabbi Dr. Simcha Goldman was forbidden from wearing a yarmulke while serving in the US Air Force. He brought the matter to court, suing the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, on behalf of the Air Force for having violated his First Amendment rights under the Free-Exercise clause. The Air Force countered that it had strong interests in maintaining a rigid uniform requirement to maintain esprit de corps and teamwork.

The legal irony was that when Goldman sued the military he was already out of service, hence the issue of the yarmulke was moot; courts deal with actual problems, not theoretical ones. However, since Goldman was prompted to take emergency leave consequential to the Air Force’s refusal to allow him to wear a yarmulke in service, he lost several days of work and compensation to the tune of $100.

Goldman was suing over the civil rights issue, but as Dovi Butler from COLPA was putting together the case for him, the attorney asked if there was anything else that he wanted to throw in. The $100 was an afterthought, but only because of this, the theoretical – and no longer pertinent issue of the yarmulke – was resuscitated.

This paltry $100 over which the case was convened would result in the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars on Uncle Sam’s tab in court-related expenses.

Goldman sought to acquire a permanent injunction along the lines of the temporary restraining order, and the Air Force – after initially waffling – resolved that it would fight. Their decision contained an inherent gamble, as the temporary restraining order, and the permanent injunction that Goldman sought, would have awarded him alone the right to wear a yarmulke in service. But if the Air Force was to lose their challenge, this might open a floodgate of requests for head coverings from turbans to taqiyahs to kafiyehs – all with a legal precedent from a district court.

And yet, and yet, the Air Force had made their decision and decided to call in the big guns. We’re talking very big and top guns, respectively. The Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Air Force appealed the district court decision to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

All stops were unplugged for the Air Force’s appeal. At tax-payer’s expense, Captain Simcha Goldman was flown from California to Washington D.C. to give a deposition. It is extremely unusual – nearly unprecedented – for the defendant being sued to cover the expenses of the plaintiff. It also demonstrates how determined the Air Force was to high-handedly quash this lawsuit.

It might also be assumed that they believed (Simcha’s words) Goldman to be a big mouth, and he would inevitably say something in the deposition that could be used against him.

In order to fortify their case, for which they were going to great lengths and sparing no expense, the Department of Defense felt it essential to bone up on their knowledge of Jewish law as it pertained to wearing a yarmulke. Farcically, the authority they employed to instruct them was a Jewish Conservative chaplain, hardly an expert in the intricacies of halacha.

The thrust of the Air Force’s defense was that the Constitution only protected a genuine religious law; not a personal preference. Wearing a yarmulke, they argued, was not the law. This was to be established by subjecting Goldman to a battery of questions formulated by their expert non-scholar, argued by a military lawyer absolutely clueless about what he was trying to prove before judges even more in the dark, unfamiliar with the terms and not comprehending the concepts.

Here is some of the legal wizardry marshaled by the Air Force’s Litigation Dream Team to highlight how arbitrary and non-binding Jewish law is.

*Orthodox Jews do not eat meat and milk together, yet they are not required to have two separate refrigerators. Are they?!

A: The prohibition is to consume meat and milk together; not to store them together. Refrigerators have not been known to do the former.

*Do you wear tzitzis as prescribed by the Biblical Verse Numbers 15:38.

A: I do

*So why are you concealing them?

A: To display them openly would be a violation of military protocol and uniform regulation.

*“Aha!” cried the prosecution with an exult of victory, “if you compromise on this issue, why were you so intransigent on the yarmulke issue?”

A: The requirement to wear tzitzit may be fulfilled whether they are concealed or not. There is no way to cover the head in a concealed way.

This would have and should have been an adequate answer, but Simcha Goldman decided to get legalistic and elaborated that not all of the commandments have the same weight. Some are biblical, some are rabbinic. Some rabbinic laws may actually carry more weight than a biblically ordained law.

Goldman plowed on inducing the kind of excitement reserved for a logarithm chart. Despite the judges’ best efforts, one magistrate’s eyes were glazed, another looked about as numb as a guy doped up for a bypass and the third seemed oddly unenriched by the fine distinctions between rabbinic and biblical law. But this was not about to stop Team Air Force.

*Do you wear a yarmulke when you take a shower?

A: A yarmulke is meant to display fear of Heaven when one is out and about. There is no need to cover one’s head in the privacy of a shower, nor is it in any way practical.

*JAG’s military lawyer grasped at the straw. Do you mean to imply that there is no requirement to fear Heaven in a shower?

Instead of replying the obvious, which would have – admittedly – required some halachic clarification which would have surely been lost on the judges, Goldman flustered. In this moment of indecision. another question was fired causing the plaintiff to reply, “I do not know.”

*What do you mean, “You do not know? You are a rabbi; you must know the answer.”

Nathan Lewin, who represented Goldman in the hearing, could take no more of this and wisely retorted, “Not every lawyer knows the answer to every legal question.”

In summation it would be fair to say that although the courtroom had all the excitement of a mausoleum on a slow day, witnesses recalled that although the Defense’s Talmudic arguments did not score any points, they were nonetheless humor-inducive.

Just like in the restraining order, Judge Aubrey Robinson ruled again in favor of Goldman in a decision rendered in April, 1982. The main attorneys for Dr. Goldman were Nathan Lewin and Dovi Butler; Dennis Rapps wrote the brief. The judge noted that the military failed to show any objective studies conveying that religious exemptions would erode morale in the military.

(To be continued)

Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!

Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Jewish Practice In The U.S. Military (V)

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

After these turn of events, Goldman weighed his scant options. He considered requesting the Jewish Defense League (JDL) to conduct a protest across from the base, and he had some other not-fully-prudent ideas, but in the end he did the smartest thing that he could have done, which was to contact COLPA who advised him – among other things – not to organize any protests.

Goldman recounts that his predicament – one against the entire military establishment – was at the same time stressful and, oddly, exhilarating. He felt as if the Almighty was tapping him on the shoulder and whispering, “I want you to pull this off for Me.”

Goldman received the slightest of reprieves when the military defense counsel (who was all incredulity that Goldman refused a direct order and continued to walk around the base wearing a yarmulke) argued that the Letter of Reprimand should and could not be placed in Goldman’s file, for at the time of the order’s non-compliance the Defense Counsel was out-of-town.

The council further advised, upon examining the file, that Goldman take immediate advantage of the six days of leave that were coming to him. Simcha complied with this advice, applied for emergency leave – which was granted – providing him with nearly a week’s reprieve.

COLPA’s handling of the case was spearheaded by David Butler who worked for Nathan Lewin. Butler apprised Goldman that they were seeking injunctive relief from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (the correct address for military matters) claiming that the Air Force had violated Goldman’s First Amendment rights under the Free-Exercise Clause.

The district court under Judge Aubrey E. Robinson (the very same judge who had ruled in favor of Rabbi Geller) granted Goldman a temporary restraining order on July 3, 1981, preventing the Air Force from enforcing its headgear regulation.

“There can be no doubt that the Plaintiff’s insistence on wearing a yarmulke is motivated by his religious convictions, and therefore is entitled to First Amendment protection,” Robinson wrote. “Because of the seriousness of the First Amendment allegations,” he continued, “and resulting pressure on the Plaintiff to abandon his religious observances, injunctive relief is appropriate.” Judge Robinson also ordered the Air Force to withdraw the letter of reprimand and negative performance evaluation given to Goldman.

As a restraining order is filed in court it is technically a public matter. Factually, court orders are filed all the time, and no one in the public is the wiser. But in this instance an alert reporter was present – and sensing a serendipitous moment – was going to turn this routine court procedure into a national scoop.

After the termination of his emergency leave, yarmulke-adorned-Goldman returned to the base protected by a court order. No commander appreciates his wings clipped by an underling – how much more so in the wing-sensitive Air Force – and, as always, action begets a reaction.

Simcha Goldman received notice that the courtesy that the Air Force afforded him regarding Sabbath accommodation would be curtailed. The standing arrangement was that he worked one-and-a-half hours later on Thursdays so that he could depart one-and-a-half hours earlier on Fridays (Sabbath observance commences with sundown on Friday and concludes at nightfall on Saturday) in order to spend the Sabbath with his family that lived 90 minutes from the base.

The Air Force could deny Goldman the courtesy, as they were not requiring him to violate his Sabbath. Nothing prevented Goldman from observing the Sabbath by remaining in his office on the base for the duration of the 25-hour period, sans his family.

The fact that the Air Force lost nothing by allowing him to work extra hours on Thursday to compensate for what he would miss on Friday was immaterial. The matter was up to their discretion and this was a fight that Simcha Goldman could not win. The same could be argued regarding the yarmulke, but Goldman was emotionally unable to abandon that battle.

Because of his dogged commitment to principle, he ignored – initially – conventional wisdom which dictated for Captain Goldman to drop out of the Air Force and curtail the wave of hardships that were engulfing him. But no wisdom, conventional or otherwise, was able to dissuade him from fighting for his religious rights.

Alas, prudency would yet prevail. Despite Simcha’s desire to remain in service, it no longer made any sense, and was thrusting him into thornier dilemmas and further jeopardy. Daily. The four-year obligation that he owed the Air Force to compensate for funding his education was completed in August, 1981 and, reluctantly, he retired.

Simcha Goldman’s lawsuit against the Air Force came to trial in late September, 1981. He was suing the Air Force for… the $100 he had been docked in wages by being forced to take emergency leave. This created an interesting, legal paradox.


(To be continued)

Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!

Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Jewish Practice In The U.S. Military (IV)

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

Rabbi Dr. (Psychology) Simcha Goldman entered the military like many others, as a means to pay for his education. This meant that he owed the military four years of active duty to pay back the government for his graduate work. During his deployment he wore his yarmulke without controversy, but this was going to change in April, 1981 when a vindictive airman reported that Goldman was violating the Air Forces headgear regulations.

After the complaint was lodged, Colonel Joseph Gregory, the Hospital Commander where Goldman was stationed, a devout Christian who unseamlessly managed to get Christianity into every military matter – even announcements – limited Goldman to wearing his yarmulke exclusively to the hospital; everywhere else on the base it was verboten. But, law-abiding, mild-mannered, Simcha Goldman was nonetheless, unprepared to obey this command.

If you were counting, this would have been Goldman’s second, blatant mistake.

Albeit there is a Constitutional right guaranteeing the freedom of religion, that does not mean that one may violate military protocol based on this principle. The Constitution also protects the right of free speech, but if what you say is deemed unsuitable you are liable to be arrested. And yet, and yet, Goldman decided to single-handedly take on the armed forces.

The Hospital Commander had the Base’s Legal Office contact the Jewish Welfare Board’s (JWB) ecclesiastical board, which governs the policy for Jews in the military. The Air Force wanted to know whether it was truly necessary for a soldier to wear a yarmulke while in service. The man who posed the question was a Catholic chaplain, who was acquainted with Goldman and the fact that he was an ordained Rabbi.

The woman who answered the phone at the JWB, strayed a tad above her pay scale to offer her opinion. It was non-other than her own personal opinion – assuming the imprimatur of the JWB from whose office she spoke – that it was not necessary for a Jewish soldier to wear a yarmulke while in service. Well, there you had it.

Just like with the military prosecutor, likewise with this staff Chaplain, there was baggage and a score was settled. The chaplain was aware that Goldman was angry with him for diagnosing patients, although he did not possess psychological training. Although the chaplain was in the wrong, he wasn’t about to admit it. Motivated by the friction, he allowed himself the liberty of inquiring about a rabbi to a very much non-rabbi, and reported a non-informed, ignorant opinion to the base commander.

Captain Goldman was aghast at what had been perpetrated by one who knew much better. He confronted the chaplain as to how he could warrant such misinformation. The chaplain said in his own defense that when he called the JWB there were no rabbis present, so he took what there was. Goldman wondered if there existed a lamer excuse.

The world was closing in on Simcha Goldman. While nobody should be judged at his worst, how one deals with hard times says far more about a man than his waltz down Easy Street. These were crushingly hard times for Rabbi Goldman and he realized that he was on the verge of serious trouble from an adversary that never threatened innocuously. His career, his pension, legal ramifications and penal discipline were on the line. He therefore turned to a military defender as he pondered his next move.

Lawyers, characteristically, write “lawyer letters.” Goldman’s meeting with the defender resulted in such an epistle. However, when the base commander received it, a souring situation began to ferment, making Goldman about as popular in the base as bank foreclosure.

When Pharaoh was threatened he harshened his edicts, and devout Colonel Gregory took his Biblical cue. Upon receipt of the lawyer’s letter the Commander extended the order to forbid Goldman from wearing a yarmulke in uniform while in the hospital as well.

Simcha Goldman now pulled a hat trick for mistakes by refusing to comply. There must be a metaphor somewhere about not starting up against a bereaved bear and the military. Goldman’s commanding officer reacted by issuing a formal letter of reprimand, withdrew a recommendation that Goldman’s active duty service be extended, and threatened to have him court-martialed.

This was followed by Captain Goldman being commanded to sign that he was refusing to obey an order which would be placed in his file. This order was considered so vital that Goldman was ordered to drop what he was doing and appear before the Hospital Commander to sign. At the time he was conducting a therapy session for ten airmen, but he was not allowed to delay this command. So he had to stop, interrupt – indeed destroy what he had developed until then ‑ and abandon the therapy for the non-time sensitive issue of formally confirming his recalcitrance.

And this order he also refused to comply with. (This disobedience was not as blatant as it appears as he was aware that the command could be fulfilled if witnesses (of which there were no dearth) signed that he refused. He, personally, could not bring himself to sign that he was compliant in the removal of his yarmulke.)

(To be continued)

Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!

Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Jewish Practice In The U.S. Military (III)

Friday, August 5th, 2016

Eight years after the issue of Chaplain Geller and his beard was tried, the issue of accommodation to Orthodox practice would again spread its wings in the United States Air Force. This time the focus was Captain Rabbi Dr. Simcha Goldman who entered the military in September 1970.

From the time of his induction into the Navy, Goldman never encountered a problem wearing a yarmulke in the U.S. military. Initially, he had served as a chaplain (the JWB Navy chaplain screener at the time of Geller had subsequently retired) and for those years (1970-1972) the yarmulke that he constantly wore was never a concern to anyone. In 1973 Goldman’s aspirations took flight when he realized that the Air Force had more to offer him and his professional interest in clinical psychology than the Navy.

Goldman made the necessary adjustments between the military branches and was admitted to the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program earning his PhD in clinical psychology in 1977. Goldman’s method to repay Uncle Sam for the education was four years of active military duty. He was awarded the rank of captain and assigned to the March Air Force Base (subsequently closed) in Riverside, Calif., some 30 miles east of Los Angeles.

At this deployment too, he also wore his yarmulke without controversy, until matters would change in April, 1981. At that time Dr. Goldman was called as a defense witness in a court martial. As the hearing was a military tribunal, Dr. Goldman testified in uniform.

The prosecution’s case against an airman accused of grand theft of government property was contingent upon discrediting the testimony that the psychologist provided in his defense. Toward this goal, the prosecutor questioned as to which precise examinations were applied to determine the defendant’s sanity, as there are different methodologies that are considered standard.

“Was,” queried the prosecutor, “the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory: a standard psychometric test of adult personality and psychopathology) administered?”

As Dr. Goldman had not administered every exam, the thoroughness of his evaluation was called into question. Simcha Goldman did not take this as a personal affront, assuming that this was standard procedure employed by the prosecution to advance their case and weaken the defense.

One year later, Goldman was again called as a defense witness in a court-martial where the accusation was argued by the very same prosecutor. The man wanted to know which exams were used to determine the mental health of the accused. Repeating the tactics of one year earlier, the prosecutor demanded, “Did you perform an MMPI?”

This time the answer was affirmative, causing the prosecution to wax long and hard as to how inferior an evaluation the MMPI provides. The fact that the very same man could change 180° in just one year irritated Goldman, but he did not say anything, dismissing it once again as the methodology of litigators who are wont to employ the arguments that best serve their case, even if it is not consistent.

He didn’t say something initially, but he also did not totally dismiss it. Goldman put his psychological training to work and plotted how to one-up the prosecution. Dr. Goldman argued that the defendant possessed a weak personality and was influenced by bad friends with stronger personalities. And with this assertion Simcha Goldman had sowed the seeds of manipulation.

The prosecutor took the bait and, electrified like a cold motor from a jump-start, questioned, “Did you ask him if he had any good friends?”

“I didn’t believe that this was relevant.” Goldman deliberately answered vaguely, placing the red meat directly before the predator.

The military prosecutor fell for the trap head first and demanded to know why such a key factor would not be considered relevant when determining the innocence or guilt of the accused?

“Captain, I did not believe,” explained Goldman in the tone of a teacher repeating what should have been comprehended on the first take, “that this was a relevant question.”

Goldman’s response did not merit an immediate response. Silence began to flood the courtroom as everyone present understood with dread clarity that the prosecutor had been irked. The insult leveled caused annoyance to spew out of him like the spray from a hydrant wrenched open in the summertime.

Grabbing hold of himself, he finally uttered through clenched teeth, “Dr. Goldman just answer the question and let the court decide what is relevant.”

“Captain,” Goldman responded all smiles, “I don’t think the question is relevant to my clinical evaluation.” It was cheap, but it worked. This snappy rebuttal brought down the house. Ultimately, however, it was the prosecutor who would have the last laugh.

Ten days later, Goldman’s commanding officer informed him that a complaint had been lodged against him for wearing a yarmulke in violation of Air Force regulations. And just as a face can launch a thousand ships, one line can ignite a legal battle all the way up to the United States’s Court of Last Resort.


To be continued


Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!

Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Jewish Practice In The U.S. Military (II)

Friday, July 1st, 2016

Chaplain Rabbi Mitchell Geller served in the Air Force for 22 years without incident, the last seven sporting a goatee which was grown during the mourning period for his father. Although he was in the Reserves, he was still subject to military regulations, and having a beard did not conform. The base chaplain presented him with the following offer, “Either you go to the barber shop or you go to jail.”

Geller found neither option appealing, not that his opinion was being solicited. No pun intended, the beard had grown on him. It was appropriate, and as far as he was concerned, the Air Force had no right to strip a Jewish chaplain of his beard.

As stated, the Air Force saw it otherwise, and since he did not comply with having his beard removed, he was discharged from the service. If it wasn’t clear before, the seriousness of Geller’s predicament was now apparent in dread clarity.

At stake was not only the principle, but Mitchell’s long-earned pension. Twenty years of Reserve Duty qualifies for a pension; however, if you are forced out of the military you become disqualified.

After a twenty-two-year investment, Rabbi Geller had adequate incentive to judiciously explore his legal options. Initially he contacted the JWB, but they were unsympathetic to his cause and saw no justification for a beard. Geller then turned to a local lawyer who offered nothing more than undeserved legal expenses.

In desperation, Rabbi Geller turned to COLPA (the National Coalition on Law and Public Affairs) that was founded that year to defend and advocate on behalf of the rights of observant Jews. COLPA agreed to accept the case, and they duly handed it over to Nathan Lewin.

The defense had a difficult task as the Air Force, like any branch of the military, had every right to demand uniformity. Not only is standardization the cornerstone of a fighting force, but deviations from the dress code are viewed as undermining discipline. This is because the military’s goal is to make everyone become and look equal; as a team works best when there are no distinctions. Furthermore, a beard is a hazard in the event a gas mask is required.

This was a difficult argument to counter. However, Lewin is a master at comprehending the winning argument. Hence, he did not argue Constitutional Law and avoided precedent. He stuck to the strongest weapon in his arsenal: pure logic. Mitchell Geller was inducted as a Jewish chaplain; a rabbi and a beard go hand in hand. To tell a rabbi to take off his beard would be akin to telling a Catholic Father to remove his collar.

Judge Aubrey Robinson, Jr. (the very same judge who sentenced Jonathan Pollard) found this reasoning very compelling and left little room for appeal in his decision. So much so, the government did not even attempt to challenge the decision.

Rabbi Geller was awarded his pension, the government restored back pay that had been lost in the interim, and Geller retired from the Air Force a Lieutenant Colonel.

(To be continued)

Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!

Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Jewish Practice In The U.S. Military (I)

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/chodesh-tov/jewish-practice-in-the-u-s-military-i/2016/06/05/

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