SEATTLE, Washington — After five weeks of training in Alabama, with only prepacked kosher ready-made meals to eat, last week Seattle-based Chabad Lubavitch Rabbi Elie Estrin became the first Chabad officer in the history of the United States Air Force.
Last September, Estrin, 35, was sworn into the Air Force as a military chaplain at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington. That made him the first Chabad rabbi ever to serve as a chaplain. And as an officer, Estrin is now equipped to counsel military members, both Jewish and from other traditions.
The rabbi of the University of Washington’s Chabad House, Estrin’s interest in the military grew as he found himself meeting students who were veterans, or those who were about to enter the service.
“In order to best serve them I really needed to know their world from the inside,” he told The Times of Israel last week. “There are not that many Jewish chaplains in the military in general.”
Estrin felt his outgoing style would make him a good fit for a military chaplaincy. “I’m pretty easygoing. I enjoy talking to people, and that’s exactly what they want,” he said.
He remembered he said to himself one day in late 2013, “If only this stupid beard thing didn’t get in the way.” But, said Estrin, the very day he thought those words, he saw the news about the end to the beard ban. “I saw that online, I called up and said, ‘What are the needs right now?’ The response was quite serious.”
As a reservist he and his beard could have joined up before, but his way was made easier since the Pentagon loosened regulation on beards, turbans, religious tattoos, and other religious identity markers for active duty soldiers in January 2014. Estrin joins the ranks of a very few Jewish reserve chaplains who have had beards since as far back as 1976.
Estrin was born in Providence, Rhode Island to parents whose interactions with the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the 1970s oriented them to a religious Chabad lifestyle.
After growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Estrin joined the ranks of the Chabad representatives sent all over the world to provide Jewish resources and inspire Jews to life more observant lives. Though his family did not have a military background, “there was a general appreciation for… fighting for freedoms and putting your life on the line for something bigger than you,” he said.
“That’s a general theme in Chabad. Self-sacrifice is really one of the key elements of being a Chabadnik. The Rebbe had a great appreciation for the American military,” said Estrin.
‘The Rebbe had a great appreciation for the American military’
As a reservist, Estrin will continue his work at the university and spend 25 days a year on active duty as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee. He hopes to help out at Joint Base Lewis-McChord just outside of Tacoma as much as possible, including, if time allows, with the upcoming High Holy Days. With the small number of Jews fluctuating at the base, Estrin will provide spiritual services to anyone in need.
“The fact of the matter is that my job in the military is both broad and more limited,” Estrin explained. “As a chaplain, the responsibility is not just for yourself. It’s for everybody. Everyone who comes to me, I have to assist them.”
This doesn’t mean he’ll be leading Catholic mass, he jokes, but if a Catholic comes to him with a problem or needing a resource, Estrin sees it as his job to help him or her.
“The whole idea of chaplaincy in the military is preventive treatment,” he said. “We try to get to know them before they have any moral or psychological collapse.”
The Air Force is working to decrease the number of suicides, and chaplains tend to be easier to talk to than psychologists, he added.
“There are lots of issues they need to deal with, and the chaplaincy is a central part of trying to correct those issues,” Estrin said. “What they want us to do is to get to know as many people as possible. When people do find themselves in crisis, they can say, ‘Chaplain, I really want to talk.’”
On top of the discipline of a religious lifestyle came the rigors of adapting proper military behavior at the training in Alabama, which included learning military conduct and practicing physical drills to build self-discipline.
Estrin is grateful for the military’s level of understanding of his observance level. He was not forced to break Shabbat, eat non-kosher food, and he was able to observe the Tisha B’Av fast. In terms of meals, Estrin was forced to eat kosher MREs — military parlance for Meal, Ready to Eat.
The only non-MRE food he ate in his five-week officers training was a meal cooked by the Birmingham Chabad rabbi’s wife, which the rabbi drove over an hour to deliver.
“It was quite humorous. I was given a call sign, and that was ‘MRE connoisseur,’” he said. “It was something of a joke, especially after we had to run a 5k and afterwards we walk into breakfast, and they hand me my MRE, and it’s spicy chili.”
The Times of Israel regrets erroneous statements made in an earlier version of this article.
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