Binghamton University students welcomed Rabbi Barry Baron to campus to speak about his involvement as a chaplain in the U.S. military as well as the place of religion in war throughout American history.
Baron explained that chaplains in the military are both religious leaders as well as counselors who organize services and holiday ceremonies. Chaplains will advise on both the internal issues of individual soldiers, like marital issues and sexual harassment, as well as external issues with military activity itself.
Baron also spoke about Muslim religious extremism in the Middle East, and what he perceived as a lack of proper attention paid at first to extremist activities that eventually lead to the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Going back to the 1990s, there was reason to pay attention to a sort of destructive religious rhetoric,” Baron said. “Everybody wrote those people off as kooks until they crashed a few planes into buildings and suddenly this was more serious business.”
On 9/11, Baron was called down to New York, where he spoke to soldiers at Ground Zero who had tears streaming down their faces, and saw the Trinity Churchyard covered in ashes. He spoke to students about being able to see God in the events of Sept. 11.
“I experienced God [on 9/11] as commanding me to not let this stand,” Baron said. “We as people cannot have this happen to each other.”
Baron explained the importance of accommodating the religious needs of soldiers, some of whom do not subscribe to specific religions but still seek spiritual support.
“An army or a navy needs a bunch of people to go somewhere and do some fairly unpleasant things whether they really want to or they don’t,” Baron said. “In order to do that, you need people in an emotional frame of mind to be accepting of that, and you need ways for people to cope with what they are going to see.”
According to Baron, at first the only clergy in the military were Protestants. In the 19th century, as German and Irish immigrants arrived in America, the religious services offered by the military needed to reflect the growing Catholic and Jewish populations. As a result, the Civil War marked the first time that the U.S. military has had Catholic and Jewish chaplains.
During this time, chaplains became support systems that followed the troops and stayed with them. World War II brought even more religious diversity with 900,000 men in the army alone at the peak of the war who represented a mix of many religions and religious denominations.
Baron also said that, on the whole, he believed that the U.S. military was a force for good.
“Ask yourself the question: How much longer might slavery have lasted without the Civil War?” Baron said. “Ask yourself the question: What would have been the outcome of World War II without U.S. involvement? When you start to ask it like that, you can see that there are times when you actually need armed force to accomplish something.”
Baron ended his talk by describing his favorite yet unofficial task as a chaplain: making connections.
“We are, in many ways, the bridge-builders of the military,” Baron said. “We formally have some role, but most of what we do is because we make connections with people in our organization, in other countries, in outside world. We work to use what we know and rely on each other to shape a better outcome for people.”
Hadassah Head, Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project coordinator and EvoS coordinator, said she enjoyed the talk.
“Rabbi Baron was my rabbi growing up,” Head said. “I was excited to get to hear a more structured and detailed account about what it is that [the rabbi] does now that [he] is not in the area as much.”
Baron has been a rabbi for almost 26 years and has served as a chaplain since 1988. He is currently the command chaplain for U.S. Army civil affairs and psychological operations command. He also trains enlisted military members to act as chaplain assistants.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misnamed the rabbi who spoke. He is Rabbi Baron, not Brown.