After Sam Weinstein was ordained a rabbi in 1982, the military services came calling. There was a shortage of Jewish chaplains then, as now, and Rabbi Weinstein said he was glad to serve his country.
"I figured I would be in the Air Force for a couple of years," he said.
Those "couple of years" stretched into nearly 28, until he retired in December at the rank of colonel.
"It was a marvelous career," Rabbi Weinstein told a crowd of about 70 people Wednesday at a "lunch and learn" event at The Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunin in Sylvania, where he has served since 1992.
He said he was grateful for the many experiences his military career afforded him, including serving at the Pentagon, visiting the White House, meeting two sitting presidents - President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush - and touring a battleship.
The lessons learned in the military helped him become a better rabbi to his congregation at home as he balanced both careers over the years.
Rabbi Weinstein, 54, was a first lieutenant when he joined the Air Force in 1982. He was assigned to Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and trained at Maxwell AFB in Alabama.
In his entertaining hour-long presentation, he said he was "essentially clueless" about military life when he started out, but was determined to "learn about being an officer as well as a chaplain."
He took his Air Force responsibilities seriously and slowly moved up the ranks, attending numerous military and leadership schools where he studied such textbooks as Bombing to Win and learned such skills as how to identify unexploded ordnance.
"If you can't work within the system, the system will not work for you," he said.
As a Air Force chaplain, he was responsible for ensuring that servicemen and women had access to appropriate clergy and religious services.
The rabbi recalled some difficult assignments, including having to inform parents that their daughter in the Air Force had been killed by her husband at a base in Texas, and being asked to decide if an enlisted man could split his tongue for religious reasons (a request that was eventually approved).
When the first Persian Gulf War began in 1990, Rabbi Weinstein was training in Colorado but the Air Force was so efficient, achieving its mission in just 100 hours, that the rabbi was never sent to the front lines.
Rabbi Weinstein was a captain for five years and a major for nine. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1999 and to colonel in 2004.
Wherever he served, Rabbi Weinstein said, he was almost always the only Jewish chaplain, and it inspired him to be an exemplary representative both for the Air Force and for Judaism.
- David Yonke