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First Jewish chaplain in 25 years settles in at JBER

  • Author: Sean Doogan
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published September 6, 2014

Capt. Michael Bram is not your average airman. With a degree in astrophysics, Bram started out his career wanting to be an astronaut. But after several years in the U.S. Air Force, Bram set his sights on a different lofty goal: becoming an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and serving as a chaplain.

Now settling in as the new chaplain at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Bram already seems comfortable in his unusual position.

According to Bram, there are only six Jewish chaplains on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. The first Jewish chaplain at JBER in the last 25 years, Bram said he is used to the curiosity that can surround a man in a uniform and a yarmulke.

"The question I am asked, more than any other question, is, 'How does it stay on your head?'" Bram said as he sat inside his office at JBER's hospital. "That is the most common question. It is not about religion or about Israel or about Jesus or anything else -- it is 'How does that thing stay on your head?'"

Bram said that for an Orthodox Jew, it can sometimes be a challenge to be a member of the armed forces. In keeping with his faith, Bram cannot drive or answer the phone on the Sabbath, which from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. He eats only kosher meals. But Bram, who has also served as a missileer -- responsible for one of the nation's many nuclear-tipped ICBMs -- has gotten used to working around potential problems.

Bram works Sundays, and he comes in early on Fridays during winter because he must be home before the early sunsets. He also works on most Christian holidays, including Christmas and Easter. If the sun sets before his weekly Friday service is over, Bram said, he will either stay on JBER until Saturday or walk the 5 1/2 miles home.

"I try to be as flexible as possible," Bram said. "My motto is: If you want to be accommodated, you must be accommodating."

But Bram's faith is not the only thing driving him. As an Air Force chaplain he is tasked with counseling and mentoring people of any faith, and that's the way he likes it.

"One of my favorite parts is interacting with those with whom I am different and finding commonalities," Bram said. "I always say there is no such thing as an 'Orthodox chaplain.' I am a chaplain who is Jewish. I try to be as inclusive as I possibly can."

Bram does the same job as other chaplains -- listening to service members discuss the stresses in their lives, helping those who need spiritual counseling. Bram said it is the similarities in people's faith and lives on which he tries to concentrate.

"I do think we focus too much on our differences, but we don't have to," Bram said. "The end goal of making a better society is the same. Our theology might be different, but that's OK -- we can work together on those goals."

During an interview, Bram said he was busy preparing for his first religious service on base, held Friday, and was looking forward to better understanding the needs of service members and the uniqueness of Alaska.

As for the yarmulke? Bram said he used to hold it on with hairpins when he had more hair. But as age has thinned his locks, Bram said, gravity alone now does the job.

"It stays on better with less hair," Bram said. "I can tell I need a haircut when my yarmulke starts moving around on my head."

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Bram may have been the first Orthodox Jewish chaplain on JBER. Elmendorf Air Force Base previously had an Orthodox chaplain in the late 1970s.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.

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