By Yaakov Lappin, JNS.org
Capt. Rabbi Joshua Gerstein, chaplain of the Israel Defense Forces Artillery Corps 282 Fire Brigade, is a man on a mission — both spiritual and national. It’s one to which he has dedicated his life.
Having immigrated to Israel from the United States to fulfill his Zionist dream, he went on to become the fourth generation in his family to serve in the military, as well as the second member of his family to serve in an artillery unit.
“It’s really coming full circle — my grandfather, Charlie Fletcher, served in artillery in World War II,” said Gerstein. “He was in the 102nd Infantry Division, in the Artillery Headquarters. He was in Europe for 173 days of combat. His unit went over in September of 1944 to the end of the war, they went over from France all the way to the Elz River in Germany. He wrote 600 letters home,” said Gerstein.
Gerstein’s family recently published the letters in a book titled, Love and Kisses, Charlie: World War 2 Letters from a Jewish American serviceman.
One of the letters recounts a meeting with Polish Jewish survivors in a small German town on May 16, 1945, said Gerstein.
“He writes that he doesn’t know what will be with them, that the Poles hate them, the Germans hate them, that they all speak Yiddish just like we do back at home, and have cousins in New York. And he writes that he now understands why Palestine was such a grand place for the Jews.”
His grandfather’s letters formed a core aspect of his family’s worldview, said Gerstein. Conveying something of this worldview to IDF soldiers is something he views as one of his core responsibilities, he added. To encourage them to “look at their service as one of the most incredible things that we’ve been able to do in the last 2,000 years, and see the meaning in what they’re doing,” he said. “It transforms them not only as a person, but as a soldier.”
But being a chaplain brigade rabbi is also about the day-to-day, said Gerstein, who likened it to being a “community rabbi, on steroids.”
“I’m responsible for more than a thousand soldiers in their day-to-day. Whether it’s their personal spiritual needs, organizing lectures and classes, making sure kitchens are kosher according to army regulations, accompanying converts—Israeli citizens who want to go through the army conversion process—or studying with the soldiers one on one,” he said.
The brigade incorporates both male and female soldiers, as well as Druze and Christians. It isn’t only the Jewish soldiers that look to Gerstein to gain spiritual and historical perspectives, he said, explaining that tailors his message to the variety of backgrounds that he encounters.
“When you’re connected and you know your past, you’re able to continue into the future,” said Gerstein. “Every person is able to connect in their own way. There’s no religious coercion in the IDF. The rabbinate is there for everybody. For people who are religious, I talk about religious concepts. For the non-religious, I talk to them about non-religious concepts. Wherever you fall in the religious spectrum, the Tanach, the bible — this is the history. This is where it happened. As the saying goes, we’re the next chapter in the Tanach.”
Gertein’s journey to Israel was a progression, he said.
“It was definitely a gradual progression. My religiously conservative family is highly Zionist,” he said, adding that his grandfather’s letters formed a core aspect of his family’s worldview. As Gerstein grew older, he found that the ultra-Orthodox American lifestyle, which his family had moved towards, certainly viewed Israel as of great importance, but did not place a major focus on moving to it.
He first arrived in Israel in 2007, from Lancashire, Pennsylvania, to study at a yeshiva. But his routine was rattled by the deadly terrorist attack on Jerusalem’s Merkaz Harav yeshiva in 2008.
“I felt like the yeshiva I was in didn’t really talk about that much at all, and I felt like I was living in an American bubble. I felt a dissonance. I’m living here for the year, I want to feel connected and like I belong to this place. From there I went over to an Israeli yeshiva, where there was more of a cultural Israeli-ness, while still being ultra-Orthodox,” he recalled.
“In 2010 I got married, and I told my wife that I wanted to at least start our marriage living here in Israel. She’s also American — from Baltimore, Maryland — and she was also on board to start our life here,” he said.
He completed a BA in psychology in Touro College in Jerusalem, and in 2014, made the decision with his wife to live full-time in Israel.
“I told my wife that if we’re going to live here, and have a family here, and I believe in the State of Israel, and in the army and the importance of it, I need to put my money where my mouth is and also do it. To take that belief and fully immerse myself in all that I believe to be Israeli. I think service in the IDF is one of the baselines, so to speak, of being part of Israeli society. And to become part of protecting the land and the people of Israel,” he continued.
So in 2015, at the age of 26, he enlisted in the IDF. A month after his son was born, and with a BA under his belt, Gerstein found himself in basic training.
In Israel, soldiers typically begin their service at age 18, and this too, he said, gave him a unique vantage point.
“During my entire service in the army, from then to now, being older than almost everyone in my peer group, and all the officers in my unit, has given me a totally different perspective on service in the IDF,” he reflected.
It’s a perspective he does his best to share with the IDF’s soldiers.
“I always tell the soldiers I meet that if you went to a Jew, no matter where he lived in the world, 80 years ago, and told them ‘it’s such a pain, I have to get up in the morning, put on my helmet and vest, and go protect the Jewish people,’ he’d look at you like you’re crazy,” said Gerstein. “We take it for granted, and it’s a shame. My 18-year-old commander doesn’t understand the amazing things that he’s doing.”
After his discharge in 2017, Gerstein was left with a lingering feeling that his mandatory service wasn’t sufficient.
“I didn’t necessarily give all that I could give. In 2017, during reserve duty, I was offered an officer’s course, to become an IDF chaplain in the reserves. So I thought I could at least in my reserve duty continue doing something that was more meaningful and impactful,” said Gerstein.
“In 2020, I had the opportunity to return to the military, to serve as the chaplain of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, which is also an ultra-Orthodox combat battalion. I jumped at the opportunity. Because of the religious nature of the battalion, I felt I would be able to help the soldiers there,” he said. “And also, it allowed me to come back to serve the country and army. After two and a half years there, I’m now in my current position as chaplain of the Fire Brigade 282.”
Now, he can’t help but notice the completion of a historical circle, with 80 years separating his grandfather’s service in an artillery unit from his own.
“My grandfather was at the Gardelegen massacre [in northern Germany] — they found 1,000 people who were burned in the barn. His commander ordered the soldiers to take them out and bury them. We have his original photos from the site, the aftermath,” said Gerstein.
The IDF Rabbinate, too, must remain prepared for wartime responsibilities such as burials and dealing with fallen soldiers.
“In his letters, he tried to keep an upbeat persona … but after the war he certainly talked about visiting the Jews,” said Gerstein. Indeed, uplifting the soldiers’ spirits, he said, is his “biggest job.”
“My own personal experience is that run-of-the-mill soldiers don’t realize the immensity of what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Gerstein. “If a soldier gets up in the morning and knows why he or she is doing what they’re doing, they become better soldiers,” he added.