Supporting Jewish Veterans with Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum

Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum (left) officiates the bar mitzvah of Pastor Asher Tunik, a Methodist minister who was raised Jewishly in Ukraine. (Courtesy of Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum)

Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum comes from a long line of rabbis. His father and grandfather were rabbis before him, and his family was always deeply involved in the Chabad community.

But it was a critical moment in American history that led him to found the Jewish Uniformed Services Association of Maryland, or JUSA-Chabad.

“I grew up in Brooklyn, near the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s synagogue, and we were a few miles from the World Trade Center,” he recalled. “In the weeks after 9/11, I was able to see the smoke coming from the World Trade Center from the roof of my house. My uncle, Yankel Goldstein, was the chief chaplain of the New York National Guard, and he invited me to visit him while he was stationed at Ground Zero.”

Seeing the devastation that had occurred during the World Trade Center attacks and the important work that his uncle was doing as a chaplain left a great impression on Tenenbaum, who would soon devote himself to becoming a chaplain.

Tenenbaum, 44, lives in Pikesville and serves as JUSA-Chabad’s director, as well as a chaplain in the U.S. Secret Service, the Maryland Defense Force and several other Maryland-based military and first responder organizations. He and his wife, Chani, have seven children, so when he isn’t working or aiding veterans, he spends a lot of time with his family.

While he was inspired to pursue a career as a military chaplain in the wake of 9/11, Tenenbaum first became professionally involved in the Maryland military community when he moved to Montgomery County in 2005. There, he secured a position as chaplain at the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, which he still holds over 18 years later.

He also volunteered at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, which was what led to his involvement in the Maryland Defense Force.

Tenenbaum’s joining the Maryland Defense Force gave him a unique distinction: He is one of just a few members of any U.S. state guard who have been allowed to have a beard, as military members are usually required to shave their facial hair after enlisting. However, biblical rules discourage Jewish men from shaving.

“I met this older gentleman [at the hospital], and we got to talking about how my uncle was a chaplain in the New York Guard,” he said. “Later, he asked me if I wanted to join the Maryland Defense Force. I asked, ‘What about my beard?’ and he said he would help me with that. Finally, after nine months, I received a special exemption from the general allowing me to have my beard. I even made it to Wikipedia because of that.”

Tenenbaum founded JUSA-Chabad after moving to Baltimore in 2011.

“There was no other such organization of its kind, so I had to create something from nothing,” he noted.

JUSA-Chabad acts as a synagogue for veterans and uniformed service members, operating out of the JUSA House in Pikesville. The organization also offers one-on-one counseling for veterans, as well as social and community service opportunities.

In 2023, JUSA started its Veterans Circle of Friends programming, which allows non-veteran members of the community to volunteer to help local veterans. Currently, Tenenbaum is preparing for the Circle of Friends’ Purim event, which will see community members creating and delivering mishloach manot (Purim baskets of food and treats) to Jewish veterans in the area.

Tenenbaum’s work as a chaplain is very rewarding to him, because he gets to help people embrace their Jewish identities during often-difficult times in their lives. He recounted one story of Pastor Asher Tunik, a Methodist chaplain he met as part of the Maryland VA Healthcare System. Tunik had been raised Jewishly in Ukraine, but had to abandon his Jewish identity because being a Jew in Ukraine was dangerous at the time. Tenenbaum offered to officiate his bar mitzvah, as he had never had one.

“We say that the Jewish spark in every person is always there, it just has to be ignited, and his definitely was,” he said.

The Methodist chaplain later posted about his bar mitzvah online on his blog, with two pictures: one of Nazis rounding up Jews in Ukraine, captioned “Any of the people in this picture could have been my great-aunt or great-grandmother who was murdered by the Nazis.” The second, one of him and Tenenbaum at his bar mitzvah ceremony, was captioned, “This is my answer to them.”

“The greatest mitzvah I can do is helping others,” Tenenbaum said. “The least I can do is be there for them.”

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here