A historic event is about to unfold this coming Friday, as a bearded rabbi will be sworn into the U.S. Army as a Chaplain, First Lieutenant.
The U.S. Armed Forces has always held a strict policy regarding the uniform and personal appearance of those serving, forbidding beards to be worn by servicemen except in certain operational instances. Now, however, Orthodox Rabbi Menachem M. Stern will be the first bearded chaplain in 30 years to serve in the U.S. military since Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, who continues to serve with distinction in the Army Reserve as a chaplain in the rank of colonel.
According to Haaretz:
Stern has wanted to be an army chaplain since August 2008, but said the U.S. Army initially refused to accept him unless he shaved his beard in accordance with official military codes for dress and appearance. In keeping with Jewish teachings regarding preserving a man’s facial hair, the Chabad-Lubavich rabbi refused to comply.
“A soldier, whether they’re Jewish or not, will see someone who is serious and standing by his faith without compromise,” said Stern. “They’ll respect that person and come to trust him.”
Haaretz goes on to explain the long road, including legal action, Rabbi Stern took to be able to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces and still maintain his customary beard:
In 2009, Stern received preliminary approval for a reserve commission, but was told his swearing-in would be delayed as a result of unresolved issues regarding his facial hair.
He sought the assistance of U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer, Kristen Gillibrand and Joseph Lieberman, as well as that of the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavich organization that assists Jewish military personnel, Jewish inmates and their families. But despite their efforts, they were not able to secure Stern an exemption.
Failing that, Stern filed a federal lawsuit last December, accusing the army of violating his Constitutional rights to religious freedom and equal protection under the law.
In the end the Army settled with Rabbi Stern out of court, agreeing to grant him a waiver for his beard.
The Aleph Institute, based in Florida, is reportedly recognized by the Department of Defense as a military chaplain Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agency, giving it authority to vet and recruit rabbis for the military chaplaincy.
According to Rabbi Stern, there is currently a shortage of rabbis serving in the Armed Forces due to the military's policy on beards. Proud of his breakthrough, he hopes other Orthodox rabbis will follow in his footsteps and be granted a place in the military chaplaincy without having to compromise their religious customs and priciples.