Is There a Rabbi on the Base? The Life of a Jewish Army Chaplain

by | in People

In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Chaplain (Colonel) Sanford Dresin, having just received semichah from Yeshivas Chasam Sofer in Brooklyn, New York, became an Army chaplain. After serving two years on a United States Army base in Fort Meade, Maryland, he knew that if he remained on active duty, the next stop would be Vietnam. He chose active duty.

In Vietnam, the self-described “traveling rabbi” went from base to base, from Saigon to the Central Highlands, flying helicopters in and out of hostile areas in order to offer Jewish soldiers moral support and divrei chizuk, words of inspiration. They eagerly welcomed his visits. “Some would actually risk driving down a road amid [enemy] fire to come to a class,” says Rabbi Dresin. “One night, down in the Mekong Delta, in the middle of singing Lechah Dodi during Kabbalat Shabbat, we started getting rocketed. Everyone just continued singing. I told them this was a case of pikuach nefesh and we better head for the bunkers.”

Photo courtesy of the Dresin family.

Rabbi Dresin, sixty-five, calls the chaplaincy a “ministry of presence.” “Just by being there, you’re helping,” he explains. Rabbi Dresin reports that many of the soldiers he worked with became observant because of the relationship he forged with them. “Very often the Army experience brings out the pintele Yid. With bullets flying overhead, suddenly soldiers get in touch with their neshamot [souls],” he says. Similarly, for some Jewishly unaffiliated soldiers, living among those who have a stronger Jewish background helps bring them closer to their roots. “[I’ve heard] a lot of stories about observant soldiers getting up early in the morning, putting on their tallit and tefillin and davening in their tents,” says Rabbi Dresin. “Other soldiers inquire about ‘the little boxes’ and after the soldier explains, they ask to hear more. The next thing you know, some ask to wear them. One of the best areas to do kiruv is in the military.”

Sometimes a chaplain witnesses the fruits of his labor many years later. In the 1970s, Rabbi Dresin served as Jewish chaplain and division artillery chaplain for 3,000 servicemen at a base in Fort Lewis, Washington. A Jewish couple there had a baby boy, and Rabbi Dresin told them that he would be happy to arrange a brit milah. “We’re not that religious,” the wife told him. “We’ll just have a doctor do it.”

Rabbi Dresin explained to them that though they were not that religious, they did not know what direction their son would choose to take in the future. They chose to have a traditional brit milah.

Recently, Rabbi Dresin received a letter from the couple thanking him for convincing them to give their son a traditional brit milah, as he is currently a very learned frum Jew.

From 1967 to 1994, Rabbi Dresin held numerous positions in the Army chaplaincy, steadily rising from captain to major, to lieutenant colonel and, finally, to colonel. After his tenure in Vietnam, Rabbi Dresin returned to the United States and was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington. He was soon selected to study at Yale University, where he earned an advanced degree in theology. Subsequently, Rabbi Dresin served in the military in various capacities: in the Pentagon, working alongside the chief of army chaplains; in Korea as chief of chaplains; in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, as deputy chief of chaplains and in Germany, where he oversaw 120 military hospitals and clinics throughout Europe. He retired from active duty in 1994.

With bullets flying overhead, suddenly soldiers get in touch with their neshamot.

For the past two years, Rabbi Dresin has acted as director of military programs for the Aleph Institute, which offers Jewish books and other materials as well as moral and spiritual support to thousands of men and women serving the US Armed Forces.

Through his work with the Aleph Institute, Rabbi Dresin has encountered sticky situations when Jewish law conflicts with military policy. Presently, he is trying to persuade the Department of Defense to grant waivers to rabbis with beards, which is against Army regulations.

Rabbi Dresin also deals with more painful issues. “The Department of Defense mandates that every soldier killed in action has an autopsy,” he says. “The military believes that every autopsy provides information that will help them to enhance the body armor and armor of Army vehicles and could save lives in the future. We are hoping that someday in lieu of an invasive autopsy, a ‘virtual autopsy’ will be performed with an imaging device. [In the meantime], we try to see to it that there is a rabbi present at every autopsy of a Jewish soldier, to ensure that the procedure is done in keeping with halachah [as much as possible].”

In addition to his work with the Aleph Institute, Rabbi Dresin is also the head of the chevrah kadishah in Wilmington, Delaware. He makes sure to be on hand for most of the autopsies performed on Jewish soldiers at the mortuary in Dover, Delaware, which is the central receiving point for all military personnel killed overseas. “I work very closely with the staff,” he says. “They have been very respectful of [a number of] halachic requirements. One of the chief forensic medical examiners retains the blood on the uniforms, boots and other items to be buried with the soldier. He sits with a scalpel, cutting metal off of uniforms so that no metal*is placed in the casket.”

Rabbi Dresin truly appreciates the chaplains who travel to the four corners of the world, putting themselves in harm’s way to be there for Jewish servicemen. Of their noble work, he says: “We know that we can count on our military—and our military knows that it can count on us.”

* According to Rabbi Elchanan Zohn, director of the Chevra Kadisha at the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, New York, it is prohibited to place metal in a casket for several reasons. First, in the time of the Talmud, Rabbi Gamliel decreed that no one should be buried with any ornamentation; brass or buttons would be considered ornaments.

Also, in many communities it became the custom to avoid any metal in the casket, even when the casket was constructed mainly of wood. This is based on a midrash that says that just as Adam hid among the wood of the Garden of Eden after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, so man is to be hidden (buried) among (only) wood when he dies (death being the resultant punishment for Adam’s sin). Similarly, wood allows for decomposition and the natural return of the body to the earth, while metal does not.

Some also point out that metal is the material from which armaments and articles of destruction are made. Therefore, it should not be used during the time of burial when one is seeks compassion and wants God to focus on man’s good deeds. This is similar to the Torah prohibition of building an altar from stones hewn of metal (Exodus 20:22).

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2008.

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