Recollections of a Jewish Air-Force Chaplain

March 21, 2018 | Chaim Feuerman
About the author:

During the Korean war, Chaim Feuerman—then studying at an Orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn—joined the U.S. Air Force to serve as a chaplain. After very brief training, he was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to minister to new recruits. He relates some of his experiences:

Most of the chaplains [at the base] were in their mid-forties or fifties. I was a very young chaplain, just twenty-three. My trainees were much younger—seventeen. . . . When the trainees first landed on the base, their heads were shaved right away; they were then sent to the showers and stuck into loose-fitting dungarees—fatigues. No snappy uniforms for them yet.

The next stop on the assembly line was the chapel. The boys now had to hear an inspirational talk from a chaplain, any chaplain, be he a reverend, priest, rabbi, or imam—it was all the same to the military. My assignment was to tell them to be good boys, to stay away from drinking and nonsense. . . . It didn’t matter that my “congregants” weren’t Jewish. My job was to serve the spiritual needs of all faiths—to encourage the men to be patriotic, honest, “brave, courageous, and bold.”

Many of the Christian chaplains gave very long and tedious sermons. To their thinking, they finally had a captive audience—a chapel full of people—and they weren’t going to let these boys go so quickly. Their long sermons would then hold up the next group of inductees waiting to get into the chapel. This put the chaplains in conflict with the barbers, who wanted the assembly line to move quickly—they were paid by the head.

At one point, the Christian chaplains wanted to build a baptistery on the base. . . . After I looked at the plans and dimensions, I realized the baptistery could also serve as a kosher mikveh. . . . I asked [my mentor, Rabbi Isaac] Hutner if I could use it, [even though it was built with Christian religious ritual in mind]. He told me I could, because the baptistery was owned by the U.S. government, which is committed to the separation of church and state.

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