This evening (Wednesday) will mark the conclusion of another cycle of the military rabbis course, in which for the first time in history, a senior officer of the German military also participated. 80 years after the Holocaust and 75 years after the establishment of the state, this combination of words still sounds unbelievable.
Rabbi Shmuel Havlin, a Chabad emissary in the city of Bremen, also serving as the military rabbi of the northern districts in the German Army, including the submarine base in Hamburg where submarines are assembled and sold to Israel.
About three months ago, he visited the country with representatives of the German Army rabbinate, and then he was offered to participate in the military rabbis course. He seized the opportunity and in a conversation with Srugim, he describes the experience he went through during the course, from which he gained a lot of knowledge and many positive thoughts about the thinking of the military rabbinate.
"It was a unique experience," describes Rabbi Havlin. "I participated in this course for three weeks, and it was really successful."
You are considered an officer in the German army, how does it actually work there in a professional army?
"From a military and rabbinical perspective, it's so different than here. First of all, as you mentioned, it's a professional army - so the soldiers aren't always military personnel, but rather what's called "civilian employees of the IDF". They are engineers or professionals who work for the military and go about their civilian lives.
"The second thing that differs is the absolute separation between religion and state. The state there is secular, and they take into consideration the soldiers' beliefs, but there is no connection between the military and religion."
Rabbi Havlin is a Chabad Hasid, a German citizen, who heard that the German Army was looking for military rabbis. In the German Army, there are 10 positions for rabbis (currently 4 are filled), and he is appointed as the rabbi responsible for the northern region of the country - which includes the districts of Hamburg, Bremen, and Holstein.
How many Jewish soldiers are there in the German army?
"The figures are not known to the last detail, because soldiers in the German army do not have to share their faith and declare their religion. We estimate the numbers between 600 and 800."
Out of an army of half a million?
"No, the numbers are lower, around a quarter of a million. I mention again that this is a professional army, and there are few Jews who enlist and choose this position as a profession for life."
And it's impossible to ignore the question of how a Jew can enlist in the German Army, especially after the Holocaust, and sing the anthem "Germany Above All" in formations?
"Obviously, it does something in the heart, but Jews enlist in foreign armies throughout the Western world, and there are military rabbis worldwide. Once again, the majority of Jews who enlist are not combatants but individuals with civilian professions. We come to support them, because wherever there are Jews, there are also religious needs."
Are there orthodox soldiers, or am I really exaggerating now?
"Yes. Not many, but there are some. And we need to deal with a lot of challenges. Think about a soldier who finds himself alone in a remote base at the end of Germany and suddenly demands kosher food – it's quite complex to provide him with the proper meals. So, either we send him ready-made combat rations or we arrange something locally.
"For example, I regularly host a soldier for Shabbat in my community so that he can observe Shabbat and have kosher food."
Considering every detail
Let's go back to the rabbinical course, in fact you were in the religious part, that is, training on how a military rabbi runs the unit in terms of religion.
"Yes, and I want to tell you that I was very impressed by the way the IDF Military Rabbinate considers every detail, even things I hadn't thought about that could be relevant.
"It's true that they have accumulated knowledge over 75 years, with a number of Jewish soldiers that we don't have. And that's impressive. How they organize kitchen certification, with a detailed manual for cleanliness and kashrut. And the regulations regarding eruv, prayer, and synagogues, and how they transport Torah scrolls to the field. From my perspective, it was a truly unique experience.
"Of course, in Germany, we won't be able to utilize all the content, both due to the soldiers and the structure of the army, but there are many things we can integrate and improve, and that was very successful. Perhaps there's one thing that the German Army leads over the IDF, and that's its widespread acknowledgment of the "Shabbat Gentile" concept at every base."
Both in the German rabbinate and in the military rabbinate, the rabbi also serves as an address for matters of faith and spiritual conversations. "We are also the address for those interested in Judaism or seeking to delve deeper. People turn to us primarily in cases of family bereavement – regarding assistance with burial and mourning laws, and then sometimes there's also a desire to get to know the tradition and heritage better, which is additional value we can provide."
Cooperation between the military rabbinate and the rabbinate in Germany
Rabbi Havelin underwent the course while he was on 'civilian' status, but despite his distinct appearance, he didn't feel like a stranger among the rest of the soldiers.
"I took part in the course with them, the rabbis' course, which means the weeks during which they deal with topics related to military rabbis, and that was what was relevant for me. After that, when they went on their military training for officer training, I didn't need to participate, and I returned to Germany."
"Now begins the challenging part for me, to summarize all the content I've received, to formulate it, put it in writing, and see how we integrate and incorporate it within our context."
The cooperation between the IDF and the German Army is not new. In recent years, the ties between the militaries have strengthened, with German officers attending courses in the IDF and on Israel's Independence Day flyovers, a German aircraft also participated in the aerial display in the skies of Israel.
What is the most striking difference you have seen between the German army and the IDF, punctuality?
Germans are known for their precision, but in the IDF, they also adhere to schedules, and that's a good thing. The biggest difference is the structure. Here, it's a people's army where everyone serves for a relatively short period of time. There, it's a professional army where only a portion serves for longer periods.
The motivation was sky high
I also want to highlight the human aspect, the people who were on the course with me. This means a huge group of reservist military rabbis who left their homes for a period of 6 weeks during the summer months. Most of them have families with children at home, and these are the months of the extended vacation.
And with all of this, everything was done with joy and sky high motivation. It's not a simple course – the days began each morning at 6 AM with the morning prayer and ended at 11:00 PM at the training base. Despite the intensity, the motivation was at its peak. It simply impressed me greatly, and I truly enjoyed every moment.
I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart for this opportunity to participate in the course, primarily because it's not to be taken for granted, and secondly, the desire to help and to be assisted, because ultimately, assisting the Jewish soldier is in all of our interests.
The military rabbinate is happy about the cooperation
Lieutenant Colonel Aviad Simhoni, a Communication Officer of the IDF Military Rabbinate, added: "Two years ago, a military rabbinate branch was established in the German Army as part of the religious affairs framework of the military. Within this branch, there are several military rabbis in different districts and a chief military rabbi.
The military rabbis, like other religious personnel, are civilians. They do not wear uniforms and are not part of the command structure. The IDF Military Rabbinate has maintained good relations with them, assisting and supporting them extensively, and providing advice primarily on matters of knowledge sharing and developing thought processes."
Around Holocaust Remembrance Day, representatives from the German Army's Military Rabbinate visited Israel and joined tours with the IDF Military Rabbinate. During their visit, the idea emerged that one of their rabbis would participate in the advanced training phase of the IDF Military Rabbinate's rabbinical course, which is currently taking place.
The IDF Military Rabbinate is very pleased with this connection and opportunity, as are the Communication Officers of the IDF, this connection is fruitful and enriches all relevant parties and factors, as they learn from each other and further solidify themselves as part of this relationship.