Military chaplain moves up in the ranks
With many roles, says Lakewood deputy mayor, ‘Uncle Sam owns me’
Menashe P. Miller has many roles: rabbi, chaplain, husband, father, and municipal official. He also has many jobs, all part-time. In addition to serving as a military chaplain and the deputy mayor of Lakewood, he works as director of government affairs for Chemed, a Lakewood-based, federally funded health facility that, among other things, treats underinsured and uninsured patients. And he teaches evening courses in Jewish studies.
And he assumed his newest role, lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, in a promotion ceremony on Nov. 19 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, where he serves with the 87th Air Base Wing.
“My job as a chaplain supersedes all my other activities,” he told NJJN in a phone interview. “When the military needs me, I go, and put the other things on hold.
“Uncle Sam owns me.”
Prior to his recent promotion, Miller received the Air Force’s Outstanding Unit award in 2004 and 2008. In the recommendation for his latest promotion are such phrases as “PR genius — ambassador in blue,” “best I’ve seen,” “incredible talent,” “dynamic and savvy leader,” and “vital to the spiritual fitness at the Joint Base.”
Commissioned in 2002 as a second lieutenant, Miller, now 43, has been under fire in overseas war zones and has worked with individuals of various religious backgrounds from all branches of the military. He has offered spiritual guidance and comfort; counseled servicemen and women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; and helped Jewish soldiers, sailors, Marines, and Air Force personnel keep the faith under difficult conditions.
He is motivated by his own faith and by gratitude. “As a Jew,” he said, “I feel it is my responsibility to give back to this great country for allowing my people to practice their religion in freedom.”
The basic requirements of his chaplaincy are that he serve a minimum of two days per month and another two weeks at some time each year. “Most of the time I am stationed at McGuire Air Force Base,” said Miller, “and that is not so far from Lakewood” — about 25 miles — “that I can’t spend some nights at home.”
Often, however, he is called upon for additional service, “sometimes being activated for weeks at a time, and that is a round-the-clock commitment,” Miller said. “When my assignment takes me away, however, I am always ready to go.”
Some might find this in-motion lifestyle too much. Not Miller. “An Air Force general once told me the trick to juggling several balls at one time is to recognize which ones are made of rubber and which ones are glass,” he said. “The rubber balls will always bounce back up again. So the priority is to make sure you catch the glass ones.”
Fortunately, his family — his wife, Yocheved, and their three daughters and four sons, ranging in age from 4 to 19 — are “very supportive,” Miller said. “They understand what needs are, and not just my obligations but the needs of my military, medical, and political constituents, as well.”
Concerning his political career, Miller, a Republican, said he is now in his 15th year as a member of the Lakewood Township Committee. Running every three years, he has won five consecutive campaigns.
“In our system, committee members change jobs every 12 months. I’ve been mayor four times and deputy mayor four times,” he said.
Born in Lakewood, Miller lived there until he was 14, then spent three years as a boarding student at the Mesivta of Long Beach in New York’s Nassau County. He then moved to Israel and attended the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem for two years. After his return to New Jersey, he enrolled at Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, where he earned a master’s degree in talmudic studies.
“Because I had that advanced degree, I was able to be commissioned as a second lieutenant at virtually the instant I enlisted in 2002,” Miller said. Rising through the ranks, he went to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., in 2004 and completed a Commissioned Officers Training School program. That resulted in an immediate promotion to first lieutenant. A captain’s bars appeared not long after, and then a major’s gold oak leaf cluster.
With each step up, his administrative duties as a chaplain increased “and hands-on experience with individuals lessened.” He said, “I do miss the one-to-one interaction, but I also appreciate the rewards of performing in a larger capacity, where my work affects so many more people.”
Commenting on his multifaceted career, Miller said he often finds that skills needed for one activity prove to be useful in another. One example: He was named Lakewood’s mayor in the fall of 2010 but had to go overseas for six weeks to fulfill his chaplaincy service in Iraq before taking office. His return coincided with the fatal shooting of Lakewood policeman Christopher Matlosz, who was 27 and engaged to be married. The perpetrator was from outside the Lakewood area.
“Many in the town and on the police force needed to hear a positive voice to help them avoid depression,” he said. “I had just been doing that work for over a month” as a chaplain in Iraq. “That made a tough job just a little bit easier.”
The following year, Miller was sent to Qatar during the winter holiday season. “This is a difficult time for many in the military — a time they long to be with their families. Chaplains can play an important role by bolstering spirits and encouraging hope. We serve by offering counseling, by providing mission support (meaning we accompany the men on their assignments), by making
visitations where we can assess emotional risks among the troops, and by leading or participating in religious life-cycle events, such as the lighting of Chanukah candles.”
An important part of a chaplain’s mission is overseeing religious observances in the military. “We lead services and help obtain kosher food for servicemen and women. Occasionally, we may get to perform a wedding service,” he said. “Unfortunately, we often have to preside at burials.”
Miller said one interesting development is a change in the way the military conducts autopsies. “When someone dies in combat, the caliber and angle of the shell can sometimes provide valuable military intelligence. But Orthodox Jews and Muslims, and some Christians as well, believe that the body should be buried intact. Until recently, chaplains had to explain this to military authorities and then take time trying to contact the deceased’s family to see what their wishes were.”
However, Miller said, the use of MRI technology to perform non-invasive autopsies have become more common, so much so that it has even been accepted by Orthodox authorities.
Miller said he fully embraces his lifestyle and life’s work. “Regardless of how hectic it is, I find it filled with meaning and the opportunity to serve. Each night, I pray for peace in the world, the safety and happiness of my family and loved ones, and for the ability to go on helping people within my areas of responsibility.”