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Aleph hosts military conference for Jewish service members  

Nearly 200 Jewish service members and their families gathered in Florida for Aleph’s Military Symposium, a pivotal event for Jews in the U.S. Military.

Nearly 200 Jewish service members and their families gathered in Bal Harbour, Fla., for the 17th annual Aleph Military Symposium
Nearly 200 Jewish service members and their families gathered in Bal Harbour, Fla., for the 17th annual Aleph Military Symposium

Nearly 200 Jewish service members and their families gathered in Bal Harbour, Fla., last week for five uplifting days of training and camaraderie during the 17th annual Aleph Military Symposium, a pivotal event for Jews in the U.S. military hosted by the Aleph Institute. 

“Many Jews in the military do not have the opportunity to interact with a broader community while serving on isolated bases,” says Chaplain Maj. Elie Estrin of the U.S. Air Force and Aleph’s military personnel liaison. “The symposium is critical in bringing the Jewish military community together, empowering them to effectively carry out their missions.” 

Held from Feb. 28 to March 3, the conference focused on the themes of readiness, resilience and moral clarity. Among the attendees were chaplains endorsed by Aleph; international chaplains representing the militaries of Israel, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands; as well as soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen; and their families. 

“The Aleph military symposium provides a unique opportunity to salute our dedicated Jewish service members and their families across the United States and worldwide,” explains Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, Aleph’s CEO. “The event epitomizes our unwavering dedication to support these brave men and women and ensure they have everything they need to serve G-d while serving their country.”

Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy join in daily prayers during the annual Aleph Military Symposium. Photo by Yisroel Teitelbaum@jewish.giant.

The five-day conference kicked off with a barbecue on Feb. 28, and warm greetings the following morning from Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, Aleph’s founder; Rabbi Aaron Lipskar; Retired U.S. Army Col. Rabbi Sanford Dresin, chaplain endorser; and chaplain Maj. Estrin. Over the next few days, participants delved into crucial topics such as counseling individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, maintaining moral clarity in wartime and grasping the intensive halachic (Jewish law) duties of the IDF rabbinate in the horrific aftermath of Oct. 7. 

Attendees heard from the deputy chief of chaplains of the U.S. Army, Chaplain Brig. Gen. Jack Stumme and retired Vice Admiral Herman Shelanski, of the U.S. Navy. The keynote speaker, Maj. Gen. Scott Jackson, chief of staff at U.S. Southern Command, captivated the crowd over a gourmet, three-course Shabbat meal, talking about the importance and impact of chaplains at every echelon of the military. Another highlight was a fireside chat with the 23rd secretary of the Air Force, the Hon. Deborah Lee James. 

Other notable presenters included Col. Tzachi Dotan, the previous chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces rabbinate and officer in charge of fallen soldier identification and burial, and Rabbi Maj. Yehuda Rath, chief rabbi of emergency military halacha of the IDF. Their participation emphasized the important collaboration between the U.S. Military and IDF chaplaincy leadership.

The weekend’s celebratory spirit was elevated by several events: a retirement ceremony honoring Chaplain, Lt. Col. Michael Bram for his service in the U.S. Air Force and an award presented to Chaplain, Capt. Levy Pekar, U.S. Air Force, for his outstanding work serving the Jewish military population across all of Germany. The Jewish War Veterans (JWV) were represented by retired U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Ginsberg, JWV vice commander; and retired Maj. Aaron Scheer, U.S. Air Force.

A soldier poses a question to the U.S. Army’s deputy chief of chaplains, Chaplain, Brig. Gen. Jack Stumme. Photo by Yisroel Teitelbaum@jewish.giant.

This year’s program also included sessions for cadets from West Point U.S. Military Academy as well as the U.S. Air Force Academy, marking the first time the Air Force Academy cadets participated in the Aleph conference. “For the cadets, having the opportunity to meet so many other Jews in uniform, from all services and ranks, was invaluable,” says Chaplain, Capt. Saul Rappeport of the U.S. Air Force. “Both hearing the stories of more senior service members, as well as simply joining together with them to celebrate their shared Jewish heritage, will have an immense positive impact in the ongoing formation of these emerging military leaders.”

Service members and their families look forward to the symposium all year. For some, it’s the only chance to have in-person contact with fellow Jews. As U.S. Army Maj. Aaron Salter put it, “Walking into the Aleph Institute felt like going to Jewish U.S. military Disneyland.”

Another service member added: “This week has been an infusion of strength and camaraderie that will carry me until next year.”

For the spouses and families of military members, the program provided a mix of serious and lighthearted activities that included a group panel discussion on military life, opportunities for Torah learning and a fun paint night. Several of the military children volunteered to put together mishloach manot packages that Aleph sends to its constituents. 

“The solidarity and sense of community are just amazing,” says military spouse Chaya Sara Ceitlin. “It was great to feel truly seen by people. I was surrounded by a group of women who understood me and had wonderful advice to give. It feels like coming home.”

Lance Corp. Justin Rapp, U.S. Marine Corp, lifts the Torah at a prayer service during the Aleph symposium. Photo by Yisroel Teitelbaum@jewish.giant

On March 2, Chaplain Lt. Col. Joey Friedman of the U.S. Air Force delivered a powerful presentation on the halachic ramifications of Israel’s wars with insightful Torah sources. His talk ended with a standing ovation and spontaneous rendition of “Acheinu,” a Hebrew song that calls for the release of fellow Jews in captivity. The unity and emotion that reverberated around the room as everyone sang was indescribable and concluded the weekend on a poignant note.

Participants returned to their respective bases spiritually, emotionally and professionally rejuvenated. They are now counting down the days until the next reunion. For more information about Aleph’s military programs, go to www.aleph-military.org.

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Aleph is a nonprofit dedicated to providing Jewish education and religious programs to thousands of people who are incarcerated and their families, as well as to the numerous Jewish individuals serving in the Unites States military. Aleph offers a wealth of critical financial, emotional, and social services to thousands of shattered families and individuals in crisis across the United States. Aleph is committed to criminal justice reform and reducing recidivism through preventive education and faith-based rehabilitation programs, re-entry assistance, alternative sentencing support, and policy research and recommendations.
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