Air Force Rabbi Brings Religion, Comfort to Iraq


michael-bramMeg Jones of the Journal Sentinel reports: Among the gear in the duffel bags Michael Bram brought to Iraq this month were items not found in many airmen’s luggage – a shofar and tallit made of camouflage-patterned cloth.

The 1994 Nicolet High School graduate is a rabbi serving in the Air Force chaplain corps. He recently began a four-month tour to Iraq in time for the Jewish High Holidays, which begin with Rosh Hashanah at sundown Friday and end 10 days later on Yom Kippur.

Bram will lead services for Jewish airmen serving at Joint Base Balad in central Iraq. He’ll blow his foot-long shofar, a trumpet made from a ram’s horn, and wear the tallit, a prayer shawl, which he brought with him from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, where he’s been stationed since last year.

He’s one of seven rabbis serving in the Air Force, which has more than 400 chaplains and rotates rabbis in and out of Iraq twice a year.

“I’m going to try to make it as much like being home as I can, which might be difficult because everyone’s version of home is different. I’m trying to make the food as nice as possible,” said Bram, who is organizing a Rosh Hashanah meal for Jewish airmen featuring traditional foods made with honey and apples and kosher rations left over from Passover.

Since Bram arrived this month, he has led two Friday night Sabbath services, Saturday morning Torah studies and Saturday afternoon classes. Six Jews attended his first Sabbath service, while last week’s Sabbath service attracted 12.

Meals are often difficult for orthodox Jews serving in the American military since dining facilities are not kosher. Bram depends on kosher Meals Ready to Eat, care packages, fruit from the dining hall, and tuna and crackers he buys on base. Before he left Germany, he mailed things he’ll need for his job – prayer books, reference materials, Sabbath candles and items for Hanukkah.

Just like at many synagogues, services will be held in the morning and evening both days of Rosh Hashanah at Joint Base Balad. Services are shorter because of busy schedules of airmen who must work on holidays.

Bram is chaplain for the Mission Support Group at Balad, which includes the communications squadron, force support squadron and civil engineers ranging from the base fire department and maintenance workers to those working in human resources and personnel offices. He’s trying to visit all the gyms, dining facilities and recreation areas at least once a week to meet with people but admits it will be difficult this month because he’ll be busy with the Jewish holidays.

Bram, like all military chaplains, ministers to all faiths.

“I’m not a Jewish chaplain. I’m a chaplain who’s Jewish. I’m here for everyone,” said Bram, 33, who grew up as a Reform Jew but decided to become orthodox after joining the Air Force. “I’m assigned to a certain number of units and I’m their chaplain. If they have a religious need, our job is to make sure that every soldier, airman, Marine or sailor can practice their religion.”

Bram counsels military members but cannot baptize, give last rites or take confession, so he’ll find a chaplain who can do those things. When he was stationed at Ramstein – with 53,000 Americans it’s the largest American settlement in Europe – Bram lived in the same apartment building as a Muslim chaplain and invited the imam and his family to the Jewish Sukkot celebration in his home.

“We each decided not to discuss politics,” Bram said of the imam. “I’m sure we disagree on certain issues. We agree that we’re here for the same purposes.”

How Bram traveled professionally and spiritually from Fox Pointto Iraq began with a dream of becoming an astronaut. He figured the best way to do that was to join the Air Force after earning a degree in astrophysics from the University of Minnesota. Bram was sent to Minot, N.D., where his job as a nuclear missile launch officer meant 24-hour shifts every third day, which left him with plenty of time to read and explore his faith.

He decided to become a rabbi, left the active duty Air Force to attend yeshiva in Muncie, N.Y., and was ordained in April 2008, the same month he returned to the military as a chaplain at the rank of captain.

“I think being a chaplain in the Air Force suits him very well,” said his mother, Andee Bram. “He’s found a way to combine his patriotism and love of Judaism into a career. To be able to combine two things that he loves is pretty amazing.”

His wife, Sara, and their daughters Devorah, 3, and Chaya, 6 months, are living in Georgia with her family during his deployment to Iraq.

Balancing his faith with his career as an Air Force officer means accommodating his religious requirements as long as they don’t affect the military mission. For example, Bram normally does not use a phone on the Sabbath, but in an emergency, such as an attack on the base, he knows he would use a phone or radio if needed. He had to work on a recent fast day, and because he didn’t eat he asked for and was granted an exemption from physical training.

Bram worked with Chaplain Harry Mathis at Ramstein, where Mathis’ staff includes two Roman Catholic priests, an Anglican priest, a Muslim imam and eight Protestant chaplains.

Last year, Mathis recalled, the Jewish High Holidays coincided with the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. Since the base’s synagogue and mosque are in two wings of the same chapel building and share common areas, “it was amazing to watch Mike (Bram) and our imam carefully and respectfully work out a plan to share that space.”

 {Journal Sentinel/Noam Newscenter}