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Military chaplains: An Orthodox rabbi mixes faith and patriotism in Afghanistan

Army Capt. Shmuel Felzenberg juggles outreach to local Muslims, interfaith counseling, and the kosher quest

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Because the majority of chaplains in all branches of the military are affiliated with fundamentalist Christian churches, one might expect to hear such views often. But of some 20 chaplains extensively interviewed over the course of three months in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rabbi was one of only two who saw in the war elements of Biblical prophesy. A few stated point-blank that they disagreed with the decision to go to war, but most eschewed politics, all the while asserting that they did not see this as a religious or holy war.

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All, however, believed their presence to be necessary in order to support the troops and help commanding officers stay the moral course in the conduct of war.

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One of the key ways chaplains communicate their faith is by living it in public – and for none is this harder than for Felzenberg.

"I don't know of another faith that is so full and encumbered with religious observances and requirements," he says.

At a Friday Seder with six other soldiers, Felzenberg passes the gefilte fish and jokes that it's easier to keep kosher in Afghanistan than it was when he was based in Hawaii. With no Orthodox community and no kosher stores there, his wife had to have meat flown in from Seattle. In Bagram, on the other hand, he gets raw vegetables from the cafeteria and supplements them with shipments from home and Army-supplied kosher meals. For holidays like Passover, the Army provides supplies, right down to Passover-approved wine.

Much more difficult for him was the Army requirement that all soldiers be clean-shaven. "I put in a request through military congressional channels" for a dispensation, he says, one foot tapping lightly on the rug. When it was denied, "I debated [the issue] with others and, in concert with the appropriate rabbinic authorities," he cobbled a compromise he could live with. From the minute he goes on leave to join his wife and six children until the instant he returns to duty in uniform, Felzenberg does not shave. And while on duty, he uses an electric razor, thereby obeying the prohibition against straight razors. "That was ultimately a strong, bitter pill to swallow," he says. But the compromise was worth it: "I was afforded the opportunity to serve."

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As the only Jewish chaplain deployed in Afghanistan last spring, Felzenberg traveled a fair bit to conduct services at other bases.

"I've come to agree," he says, "with the saying 'it is better to minister to one in the field than 500 in garrison.' "

Still, more often than not, he helps Jewish soldiers come to Bagram, particularly for holidays best celebrated in fellowship. At Passover this year, 20 soldiers shared a Seder that stretched well into the night in the unit's chapel.

As brigade chaplain, Felzenberg also makes sure that the Christian chaplains under him meet the needs of their communities and that everyone, regardless of denomination, can participate in morale-building activities like the outreach program with the local Afghans, or can simply knock on his door if they need to talk.

In fact, Felzenberg's rigorous prayer schedule and dietary restrictions make it easy for soldiers to track him down, especially at mealtime, when they can simply follow the smell of latkes or eggs back to the long, narrow room where he ricochets like a pinball between a one-eyed burner, a minifridge, and the microwave.

While he cooks, he talks. "Pain is just weakness leaving the body," he says, at one point, echoing a Marine recruiting slogan, "and though nobody likes to be deployed for an extended period of time, it's ultimately a job and a mission that must be done, and if we don't do it those who come after us will either have to do it or not even be afforded the opportunity to do it."

His unwavering certainty appeals to many of the soldiers, including some, like Staff Sgt. Greg Dean, who are neither in his brigade nor Jewish yet attend services and Bible study with Felzenberg because his firm beliefs enrich rather than stifle a conversation with people who hold other views. When he returns stateside, Sergeant Dean doubts he'll have this kind of ready access to a rabbi. Fond of puzzling out the intricacies of the Old Testament, Dean will miss the intellectual contact.

"I enjoy talking with him," Dean says over a hasty dinner in the cafeteria. "Lots of Orthodox rabbis are very brittle – he's not. I like his mind."