Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum describes the path that has led him to his role as director of the Jewish Uniformed Service Association of Maryland as sheer “divine providence.”
Almost 10 years ago, Tenenbaum was serving as a chaplain at a local hospital in Montgomery County when he struck up a conversation with a stranger at a Shabbat service. They spoke for a little about military service — the man was retired military, and Tenenbaum had an uncle who had served as an Army chaplain. A few months later, the man called him to offer him a job.
“He asked me the question: ‘How would you like to become a chaplain in the Maryland Defense Force?’” said Tenenbaum, a resident of Park Heights. “I said, ‘That’s something I never thought about. That’s something that’s very interesting, and I’ll definitely think about it; however, I know there’s a problem with wearing a beard in the military.’”
A year later, Tenenbaum, who had experience as chaplain of his local volunteer fire department, got the approval to wear a beard and became the first-ever Hasidic chaplain to sport facial hair in any American state defense force.
Today, he serves as part of the religious services for the state’s National Guard as well, in addition to building up his own organization: JUSA, which is run under the auspices of Lubavitch of Maryland.
Tenenbaum, 34, founded JUSA as a support mechanism for Jews serving in the military, police, fire and other public safety services. In addition to organizing meetings and events in recognition of Jewish holidays, Tenenbaum, as director, provides those involved with religious and spiritual support and counseling. He is always on call, whether a service member needs help affixing a mezuzah to a door or needs a visit in a hospital.
Another major component of Tenenbaum’s job involves attending conferences for military chaplains. In February, he attended an annual training conference for National Guard chaplains at Camp Frederick. It was there that he met a United Methodist chaplain who had been born to Jewish parents in Odessa and had converted to Christianity in the United States.
Recognizing his Jewish-sounding name, Tenenbaum began talking to the man and found out he had never had a bar mitzvah. As the only Jewish chaplain at the conference, Tenenbaum offered to give him one.
“It was really an amazing experience,” he said of the first-ever bar mitzvah to be held at the camp. Many of the other chaplains at the conference attended the event to watch as Tenenbaum presented the pastor with a camouflage yarmulke and the pair said the Shema prayer together.
On another hot May day, Tenenbaum gathered as many service members as he could into the upstairs of a building on the campus of the MDDF in Pikesville. Though it was three weeks early, he celebrated Shavuot with the soldiers, who ranged in religiosity from observant Jew to gentile.
“I’m learning so much,” said Brian Kelm, commanding general of the MDDF who is Catholic but tries to attend as many of Tenenbaum’s holiday events as he can. “It’s not as different as people think.”
“He has done a fantastic job,” said Yakov Schultz, an MDDF forensic nurse who, since learning about the presence of a Jewish chaplain, has spent about two days each week with the rabbi studying and talking.
As Jewish service members, said Schultz, “we’re excluded.” Now, with the creation of a Jewish organization on base, “it gives us a community. It gives us a feel of community.”
Community is the goal for Tenenbaum. He is currently working on getting tags for servicemen and women to wear with their uniforms that will feature the Shema written in both Hebrew and English, something Jewish to carry with them while they serve.
Tenenbaum sees it as giving back.
“Putting your life on the line,” he said, “is the greatest mitzvah.”