Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Symbol of a changing chaplaincy

Rabbi vows to bring 'inspiration' to Canadian troops

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — When Chaim Mendelsohn swears his oath to the Queen and receives his commission as a military officer this morning, he will become the first rabbi to serve with the Canadian Forces since the guns of the Second World War felt silent.

Crawling across mud fields, living in tents and eating rations -- even if they are kosher -- will be quite a change of pace for the 27-year-old Orthodox Jew who is the spiritual leader at the Ottawa branch of Chabad Centrepointe, an international Jewish outreach group.

But Mr. Mendelsohn, a married father of two, is brimming with enthusiasm for the task of bringing comfort and faith to the men and women of Canada's military.

"The most important element of a rabbi's role is his reaching out and guiding and inspiring members of his community, members of his congregation and, in reality, people that he comes in contact with," he said in an interview yesterday.

"These young, brave men and women are looking for encouragement and inspiration."

Because he will join the reserve force, his initial commitment will be just three hours a week. But he said he would embrace the opportunity to serve in Afghanistan or anywhere his unit is needed.

The last rabbi to serve with the chaplain's office of the Canadian Forces left the job in the mid-1940s. There just haven't been enough Jews in the military since then to warrant having a rabbi in the service, said Major Neil Parker, a military chaplain.

And those numbers may not be there even now, Major Parker said. The Defence Department estimates that that just 1.1 per cent of the Forces are Jews, about the same as their presence in the Canadian population.

"But we are not going to wait until there are a certain number of people for whole faith groups before we start to meet the needs," said Major Parker, adding that having representation of particular religions is one way of encouraging its adherents to join.

Mr. Mendelsohn knows his reserve unit with the 28 Field Ambulance will be composed of all denominations.

"My role in the Forces is to reach out to the soldiers, regardless of their faith," he said. "Obviously, my Judaism is what inspires me and what moves me, and my commitment to Judaism is what directs my approach to life and everything that I feel.

"But I am joining the Forces as a spiritual leader, not as a Jewish leader."

Mr. Mendelsohn's recruitment began with a member of his congregation, a retired major-general who persuaded him, over time, that it could be his calling.

"It was something I was excited about from the very first moment I heard it, but it was something that was just over the top for me," Mr. Mendelsohn said. "And slowly but surely he managed to convince me."

Military life is not structured around the Jewish faith, but the Forces are willing to accommodate him.

"They understand that my religious requirements are foremost in my life and there are certain things that I can have almost no flexibility with, such as the holidays and the Sabbath, as well as dietary restrictions," he said, "and they are prepared in any way, shape and form to ensure that I can fulfill my role as a padre."

But he is hoping that those he counsels will take as much from him as he knows he will get from them.

"I have no doubt that there is going to be a very strong relationship between myself and my unit," Mr. Mendelsohn said.

"It really makes me proud to be able to serve with them and I have no doubt in my mind that the inspiration that I will get from them -- from their questions and from my dealings with them and from relationship with them -- is going to be something that's going to carry me for the rest of my life."

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