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Bearded rabbi sworn in as Army chaplain

Dec. 9, 2011 - 04:07PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 9, 2011 - 04:07PM  |  
First Lt. Menachem M. Stern, a Orthodox Jewish Rabbi talks to reporters after being sworn into the Army during a Dec. 9 ceremony at the Aleph Institute in Surfside, Fla.
First Lt. Menachem M. Stern, a Orthodox Jewish Rabbi talks to reporters after being sworn into the Army during a Dec. 9 ceremony at the Aleph Institute in Surfside, Fla. (Mark D. Faram / Staff)
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First Lt. Menachem Stern is a member of the Chabad Lubavitch movement of Judaism, whose rabbis are prohibited from shaving their beards. (Mark Faram / Staff)

SURFSIDE, Fla. — An Orthodox Jewish rabbi initially barred from serving as an Army chaplain because he refused to shave the beard required by his faith was sworn in to the service Friday.

First Lt. Menachem Stern of Brooklyn officially became an Army chaplain in a ceremony at The Shul Jewish Community Center in Surfside, Florida.

Stern is a member of the Chabad Lubavitch movement of Judaism, whose rabbis are prohibited from shaving their beards.

It's the end of a two-year struggle for Stern, who feels being an Army Chaplain was what he's meant to do. His oath of office was given by another Rabbi, retired Army Colonel and Jewish Chaplain Jacob Goldstein, head of the military outreach for the Aleph Institute, a Florida-based Orthodox Jewish organization.

"I am so happy to finally be a member of the armed forces of the United States," Stern said to the media after the event. "From the time I knew what a chaplain was, I felt this was my calling to serve those in uniform as an emissary in this way."

The rabbi saw an advertisement in late 2008 for military chaplains and attended a recruiter's presentation. After consulting with his wife, he decided to apply in January 2009, making clear in his application he intended to keep his beard.

Stern and other Orthodox Jews don't shave, believing a passage in the book of Leviticus — "Do not clip your hair at the temples, nor trim the edges of your beard" — specifically outlaws it.

Initially accepted as a chaplain, Army later rescinded its offer, citing its prohibition on beards. A two-year legal battle ensued. New York's two Senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut petitioned the Army on his behalf.

Also, a lawyer for the Aleph Institute, filed a federal lawsuit in Washington a year ago. Aleph has a large outreach program that includes the military.

Stern, who turned 30 the night he was commissioned, will now leave the first week in January for Fort Jackson, S.C.

Stern made special note in his acceptance speech after being sworn in that he's called to minister to the spiritual needs of all soldiers — as all chaplains are called to do.

"The Army is a diverse organization and I'm more than ready to minister to both Jew and non-Jew alike," he said.

Stern pointed out that part of his faith and beliefs is that all human beings — not just Jews — are called by god to follow the Seven Noahchide Laws. It's a code of imperatives that, according to the Jewish beliefs were given by God as a rules for the "children of Noah" to live by. And that means, Stern said, all of humankind.

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