A rabbi presiding over a bar mitzvah isn’t a rare thing. But what about a service where the rabbi and bar mitzvah boy — both men well over 13 — are decked out in military fatigues? It’s all in a day’s work for Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum, 40, founder and director of the Jewish Uniformed Service Association of Maryland (JUSA). Originally from Brooklyn, he currently lives in Baltimore with his wife Chani and their six children, ranging in age from six months to 14 years old. Tenenbaum serves as chaplain for various law enforcement agencies, including the United States Secret Service and Baltimore Police Department. Tenenbaum is also a chaplain and major in the Maryland Defense Force, a volunteer-based emergency military organization.
When did the Jewish Uniformed Service start and how are you involved?
JUSA was officially founded in 2012, as an affiliate of Chabad of Maryland. I started getting involved with law enforcement and military members when it came to my attention that there was a need for spiritual support for Jewish men and women in uniform.
What is the mission of JUSA?
Our mission is to “serve those who serve us,” to offer spiritual and religious support to the brave heroes who ensure our safety and security. JUSA offers Jewish sensitivity training workshops and provides Jewish men and women in uniform with spiritual support, one-on-one counseling, and Shabbat and High Holiday programs.
Does JUSA focus on active service members only, or veterans also?
JUSA does conduct several programs for veterans, such as the Veteran’s Day Shabbat dinner on Nov. 8. Many veterans returning from the field are overwhelmed by the change of lifestyle awarded them as they transition to being a civilian. Many suffer from PTSD and other effects of fighting on the front. JUSA aims to give them a place where they know that they are accepted and appreciated for what they have done for their country. JUSA also partners with local businesses to help veterans train and get back into the workforce.
Are there any opportunities for civilians to participate in JUSA programming?
JUSA conducts several programs throughout the year where civilians are welcome to join and show support to the veteran community. For example, on Monday, Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. following the main Veteran’s Day event at Garrison Forest Veteran Cemetery, there will be a Kaddish Memorial Service in the Jewish section in conjunction with the Jewish War Veterans of Maryland. This is one of very few veteran cemeteries in the United States that still has a Jewish section, since Maryland’s vet cemetery used to be run by the state.
What role do you see Jewish servicemen and women playing in the community’s perceptions on issues such as foreign policy, veterans’ services, and service to the country?
Jews are proud to serve our country, and the army is very accommodating to religious practice. I stay positive, not asking about politics as much.
What do you wish people knew more about, or understood better, about serving in the U.S. military as a Jew?
I do have a story about a bar mitzvah, about this soldier and I a couple years ago.
I was at chaplain training at Camp Fretterd Military Reservation in Reisterstown, and while I was there I was speaking to different soldiers. I spoke to someone who said he’s not Jewish, he doesn’t practice, but then I asked where’d you come from? He was born in Ukraine, [and] his father and mother were Jewish. I said, according to Jewish law, you’re Jewish! I asked if he ever had a bar mitzvah. He said growing up in Ukraine it was dangerous to practice.
How would you like to have a bar mitzvah here at Frederick’s
training camp, I asked. He said it would be very special. So, we held the ceremony. I came up and explained to everyone what a bar mitzvah is, then I called the soldier up and said the blessings. As he’s saying the Shemah, he had some tears in his eyes, and it was very special and very touching.
After we finished the ceremony, the chaplain asked to say some words. He said: “I just want everyone to know it was very special and very moving, and I definitely felt God in this room.”