On Sept. 10, Rabbi Elie Estrin of Seattle was sworn in as the first U.S. Air Force chaplain with a beard after the Pentagon relaxed its restrictions on facial hair in the military earlier this year.
Estrin, who is now based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said that though he was attracted to a military life before the ban was lifted, keeping his beard was an important part of his culture.
“We try to maintain a certain stability to our lifestyle, that no matter what comes up we maintain that,” Estrin said, speaking with Jeannie Yandel on KUOW’s The Record. “That’s one of the things I’ve always found beautiful about Judaism, it’s one the things I’ve always found inspiring about Judaism – that certain standards are kept no matter what.”
When he heard that his beard would no longer be a barrier to service, he immediately picked up the phone and called the Aleph Institute to learn more about becoming a Jewish chaplain. From there he sought perspective from some military friends, “to make sure I wasn’t barking up a completely ridiculous tree,” he said.
Estrin said there is some military experience in his background: His uncle was in the National Guard during Vietnam and his father had participated in ROTC. But one of his earliest inspirations came from a book he had growing up about Medal of Honor recipients.
“That selflessness was something that really resonated with me,” he said. “In the Chabad movement, in which I serve, there has always been a great amount of respect for soldiers, for airmen, for sailors, and I believe that our credo of living your life for someone else is reflected in that appreciation.”
Estrin picked the Air Force after advice from a military friend, who put him in touch with one of the chaplains at JBLM.
“I met with this chaplain and we had an immediate kinship, an immediate rapport. At that point I literally threw my National Guard papers in the garbage,” Estrin said.
He is still getting used to military life – “I had no idea a uniform could be so complex!” – but his interaction with the network of chaplains has made the transition from civilian life easier.
He said he lives on the inspiration of seeing people serve other people.
“In the world of the Air Force – the limited interaction I’ve had with the airmen and with the Air Force in general – there’s a lot of inspiration to pull from to be able to live my life hopefully on a higher plane, pardon the pun.”
Estrin will have further training to go through before he starts ministering in the Air Force, but he has a clear purpose in mind.
“My goal is to provide people with stability, sanity and morality. If I can help people with those three, it’s a life worth living,” he said.
When asked what he in turn hopes to get out of his service, he replied, “Maybe the same.”
Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.