A forum of European military rabbis has been established in Germany

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: In a full-day schedule, Jewish chaplains from five countries, including Israel, met and discussed cooperation in the future.

 FROM LEFT: Rabbi Nir Nadav, British Army; Cmdr. Ofir Toubul, Israel Navy; Col. Shmuel Felzenberg, US Army V Corps; Lt.-Col. Yehonatan Rubin, IDF Northern Command; Chief Rabbi of the Belgian Armed Forces Israel Muller, and Rabbi Zsolt Balla, German Army. (photo credit: CONFERENCE OF EUROPEAN RABBIS)
FROM LEFT: Rabbi Nir Nadav, British Army; Cmdr. Ofir Toubul, Israel Navy; Col. Shmuel Felzenberg, US Army V Corps; Lt.-Col. Yehonatan Rubin, IDF Northern Command; Chief Rabbi of the Belgian Armed Forces Israel Muller, and Rabbi Zsolt Balla, German Army.
(photo credit: CONFERENCE OF EUROPEAN RABBIS)

MUNICH – A religiously observant Israel Navy ship commander is soon going to take part in a long and complicated training operation on a US Navy ship in the UAE, as part of a joint operation of the IDF and US militaries.

Cmdr. Ofir Toubul

The commander was worried about how he would be able to keep many of his religious traditions and restrictions while overseas. He approached Cmdr. Ofir Toubul, the rabbi of the Israeli Navy, for assistance in obtaining kosher food and other religious concerns.

“I contacted the deputy chief rabbi of the navy in the US, and he told me he’d take care of everything this commander needs with regard to religion,” Toubul told The Jerusalem Post during a first-of-its-kind meeting of military rabbis in Europe this week. “In the next few months, while he will be stationed in the UAE, there will be two fast days. He needs to be allowed to fast and rest, but also to generally be given access to kosher food, to keep Shabbat and many other aspects of religion and Jewish life.”

This isn’t the first time that Toubul has assisted an Israeli religious officer through a foreign army. “This is something we do all the time, since the Israel Navy has many activities overseas. When we don’t have an IDF chaplain nearby, we ask assistance from our colleagues in many armies across the world, and therefore this forum we are creating, of Jewish chaplains across Europe, is so important.”

 The Conference of European Rabbis' (CER) Standing Committee discussing a conversion bill proposed by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana in Munich on November 22, 2021.  (credit: COURTESY DAVID FRIEDMAN) The Conference of European Rabbis' (CER) Standing Committee discussing a conversion bill proposed by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana in Munich on November 22, 2021. (credit: COURTESY DAVID FRIEDMAN)

Toubul is just one of the members of this fascinating new initiative for Jewish chaplains in armies across Europe. An official forum for these rabbis was launched this week during the annual convention of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), which took place in Munich. In a full-day schedule, Jewish chaplains from five countries, including Israel, met for the first time, studied together and discussed cooperation in the future.

Rabbi Zsolt Balla

Hungarian-born Rabbi Zsolt Balla is the first German Army chaplain in over a century, and since he was chosen to take this historic role upon himself, he has become a star in the world media. Balla initiated the forum for Jewish chaplains in Europe and ran a small seminar for these rabbis as part of the CER convention.

“I was privileged to be on the preparatory committee of this conference, and I thought it was very important that we try, for the first time, to connect between military rabbis from all over Europe,” Balla said at the end of a session led by Toubul. “We thought it was very important to build a network of rabbis who serve in the military, and we were privileged to meet each other.

“It’s important to build the connection between us here in Europe but also with the IDF Rabbinate,” Balla explained. “We are here because we want to learn from each other and to teach from our own experiences.”

He added that there are many other military rabbis who couldn’t come to the convention but are interested in being part of the forum.

“In Germany we are new to this phenomenon of Jewish chaplains in the military, so we have so much to learn, even though every army and every country has its own unique experiences,” Balla said.

Some of the challenges that Balla mentioned have to do with assisting Jewish soldiers with religious services before holidays, bringing kosher food to soldiers who are in very remote locations, or helping them with spiritual questions.

While Balla doesn’t wear a uniform, since his post is external to the German Army, Chief Rabbi of the Belgian Armed Forces Israel Muller proudly wore his uniform during the entire convention.

Chief Rabbi Israel Muller

Muller said that he is part of a chaplains unit of religious leaders from various faiths, and that all of them are expected to assist all of the religious needs of the Belgian soldiers. “The Jewish soldiers that I’m in touch with are not religious at all, but many times when they are stationed overseas they need spiritual guidance or a connection to a rabbi. It can be consoling them when they have a deceased relative or need help in burying their loved ones in a Jewish funeral.

“At times you may run into an officer who opposes religion – no matter what religion – and we need to help the soldiers to receive their rights to freedom of religion.”

Rabbi Israel Muller

He shared a story with the group about an act of antisemitism that he experienced close to a decade ago. “When I was accepted into the army, I received my uniform at a special warehouse where the uniforms are given out. People who were in the room told me afterwards that the person who gave me the uniform spoke about me in a racist way, not to my face. It was unpleasant. I didn’t make a big deal about it.”

“There was a soldier in our navy who was going to be on a special operation at sea during Passover,” Rabbi Nir Nadav, a rabbi in the British Army, said. “We sent him a bottle of kosher wine and a box of matzah. The British Army took care of these religious needs.”

Nadav added that one of the more popular issues he is asked to assist with during his service is advising soldiers and officers about spiritual or ideological challenges. “There are officers who have talked to me about taking up a weapon or taking part in a battle with dramatic risks.”

Col. Shmuel Felzenberg is the most senior Jewish chaplain in the US Army, stationed in its V Corps (“serving in Europe, from Estonia to Bulgaria,” he explained). He also wore his uniform during the entire conference.

“Our chaplains provide religious support and advise soldiers on religious issues,” he said. “We speak to them about how spirituality affects relationships, or how religion helps morale. We provide religious support to individuals as well as to groups.”

Felzenberg shared that after participating in a discussion led by the IDF rabbis, he sees a difference between his work and that of his Israeli counterparts.

He proudly told the group that in the past five years there have been “major changes” regarding US Army chaplains “for the benefit of religious soldiers and officers.”

He explained that there is now a special and easy procedure to apply for exemptions in different aspects of religious life. “If there is a Jewish or Muslim soldier who wants to grow a beard for religious reasons, there is a special new procedure through which it can be done.” He revealed that the most popular request from religious soldiers is to grow a beard, yet if they receive approval, it can only be two inches (5 cm.) long. Felzenberg, an American Orthodox rabbi, understands that certain religious Jews are accustomed to not trimming their beards at all: “There is permission to grow your beard longer than two inches, as long as it is rolled to a state where it is no more than two inches from the face.”

He added that it’s not only Jews or Muslims who ask for these special approvals, but also Sikhs and members of other faith groups.

Felzenberg explained that the role of the chaplains in this procedure is to “check their reliability,” in order to determine whether the soldiers are asking for the exemption for religious reasons.

He shared another story of a Jewish soldier who wanted to grow his peyot (sidelocks) longer than two inches. “He had to get a special permit at a higher level than usual, and received it,” Felzenberg said, explaining that this is a less popular request and therefore needed approval from a higher-ranking officer.

“We need to understand that the circumstances [facing our soldiers across the world] are so different. If someone is in the jungle in Vietnam, that is one circumstance. If a soldier serves in a base close to his home, and there happens to be a training session during a religious holiday, that is a whole different story. So we have to make our decisions and [render] assistance accordingly. Everything is context.”

US chaplains, Felzenberg explained, also do lots of outreach to religious soldiers before major holidays. “When we are a few months before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we anticipate some of the needs of our soldiers and act accordingly. We coordinate sending chaplains to help prepare for the holidays.”

He said that “before this last Passover, I had made arrangements for the holiday in bases in Germany and after that in Poland. We had a military rabbi in reserve who came in from Israel, where he lives, and he was affiliated with a unit in Germany with many Jewish soldiers. I was also in a different base every day of Passover, in order to bring God to the soldiers, and the soldiers to God.”

The final speaker at the meeting was Lt.-Col. Rabbi Yehonatan Rubin, rabbi of IDF Northern Command.

“The needs of European or American Jewish soldiers are different from the ones of Jewish soldiers in Israel,” he said. “But the ability to respond to every soldier, whenever he or she needs it, is something we specialize in.

“What we can help them [Diaspora Jewish chaplains] with is knowledge and experience in managing a military rabbinical network. We have accumulated a great deal of knowledge and experience that they can benefit from.”