To Serve Those Who Serve
August 11, 2023
The steaming forest drips sweat from every leaf and branch. Spiders the size of dinner plates string themselves between trees, and the undergrowth hums with the songs of a million insects.
A young ben Torah hurries through the woods. Stone-faced soldiers, M-16s held ready, march before and behind him.
Suddenly, from between the trees, two shots ring out. The soldiers fall to the ground.
The yungerman dives for cover as well, unharmed. Crawling forward, he searches for the radio that has dropped from the fingers of the lead soldier and calls for help.
It’s not a hostage situation. The forest is a closed US Air Force training facility in Montgomery, Alabama. The ben Torah is Captain Yitzchok Landa, and he’s training as a chaplain, to serve those who serve.
The soldiers are fellow trainees, shot by instructors with plastic pellets. And now it’s time to carry them back to base.
Laying the groundwork
Rabbi Landa took a circuitous path to the US military.
Growing up in Brooklyn, he attended Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim.
“The yeshivah puts a very big emphasis on kiruv and the importance of serving the kehillah,” Rabbi Landa says. “They instill within you the drive for harbatzas Torah, and that is an ideal that stays with you forever.”
The yeshivah’s mussar mesorah struck some manner of resonance with intensive military training. “The military emphasizes concepts they call ‘military bearing’ and ‘situational awareness,’” Rabbi Landa reflects. “This chochmah b’goyim can be used as a mussar seder, reinforcing the mussar concepts of constant control of one’s emotions and constant vigilance—zehirus—in regard to what is going on around oneself.”
He later learned in Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim, becoming a close talmid of Rav Refoel Shmuelevitz and living just upstairs from him. R’ Refoel was Rabbi Landa’s rebbi muvhak until his untimely petirah; he provided a constant guiding light and eventually orchestrating Rabbi Landa’s shidduch.
The young couple settled in Eretz Yisrael, where Rabbi Landa learned in kollel and took a position in Yeshiva Ateres Yerushalayim, a post-high school yeshivah for American and English boys. He was the av bayit, delivered shiurim, and taught afternoon seder there for several years. At the same time, he was learning in kollel and received semichah from both Rav Reuven Feinstein and Rav Yitzchak Berkovits. He also earned a kabbalah in shechitah fromBadatz shechitah expert Rav Ben Zion Hukaima, certification from Ner LeElef’s kashrus-supervision training program, and certification from Rav Yitzchok Melber’s taharas hamishpachah program. Additionally, he authored several Halachah sefarim with a unique, structured style that tracks the development of each halachah from the basic source through today’s poskim.
“Wherever I’m needed”
Rabbi Landa comments wryly that one of his greatest inspirations is a tombstone. Rav Akiva Eiger wrote the inscription on his own matzeivah; he insisted that the only description it contain about his life be “eved l’ovdei Hashem” with the names of his kehillos. While it speaks to Rav Akiva Eiger’s humility, Rabbi Landa sees it as the greatest possible summation of a life.
“To have served those who served Hashem—what could be greater?”
With this in mind, after 12 years in Eretz Yisrael, the Landa family moved back to the US, where Rabbi Landa took a position as assistant rabbi at the New Springville Jewish Center, the shul founded by Torah Umesorah’s Rabbi Nosson Segal in Staten Island. Reaching and teaching Yidden of all levels became a family project and called for lots of creativity.
“In a settled neighborhood, it’s very hard to find the Jews,” Rabbi Landa shares. “On Chanukah, though, everyone Jewish puts a menorah in their window. Each Chanukah, we would buy a box of donuts and together with our kids, we’d knock on the door of every home displaying an electric menorah. Our kids loved it; they called it ‘donut hopping.’ We connected with a lot of people that way.”
Once, the Landas visited a house that had a tree in the front hall and a menorah in the window.
“The family turned out to be Russian Jews. They were afraid that if they seemed different from their neighbors, they might get a knock on the door at four o’clock in the morning. They still had the KGB attitude; that’s why they displayed a tree.”
The Landas’ next move was to Toms River, in 2018. They chose a young, nascent kehillah where there was room to contribute. When they first arrived, the most immediate lack was a ba’al korei, so Rabbi Landa leined in many shuls—sometimes in four places on one Shabbos.
Another thorny issue at the time was building eiruvin. Locals would tear down visible strings as soon as they were erected, and young families could not get out the door on Shabbos. Rabbi Landa devised a halachic solution, and together with a group of dedicated community members, found a way to construct a kosher eiruv while avoiding high-visibility or public areas.
In 2019, the frum Toms River population exploded. It became evident that the shuls were all full, so Rabbi Landa opened a shul in his basement. He answered various types of she’eilos and filled other rabbinical duties such as delivering shiurim and divrei Torah, but he never considered the title “Rav.”
“Wherever we have gone, the goal has always been to contribute, in whatever method or manner is needed,” he explains. “At the time, the community needed a house-shul. And that’s what we offered.”
A year later, an older, established rav from Brooklyn sought to establish a shul in the neighborhood. “It was clear that he could do more for the community than I ever could. We decided to sell the house and move around the corner. We didn’t know what Hashem’s plan for us was, but we were ready for any opportunity to contribute to the tzibbur.”
Educating the educated
It was during that time that Rabbi Landa was introduced to the OU-JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus), which brings rabbis to college campuses with a large frum Jewish population to establish a community with Torah at its core.
“When we heard that JLIC needed a new director at Rutgers, we wanted to help but weren’t interested in moving. We settled on a hybrid arrangement where we would come to Rutgers for Shabbos.”
With covid on the rise, the experience was short-lived.
The university took a very liberal stance toward covid. While Lakewood opened its schools and removed the masks, Rutgers was still locked down. The institution was nervous about having people coming from Lakewood to the college, and that was the end of Rabbi Landa’s time there.
Another door opens
With the shul passed along and his work at Rutgers finished, Rabbi Landa wasn’t done serving the community.
“It was during the covid lockdown. I was wondering what was next when, out of nowhere, I received an email from the US Air Force asking if I wanted to become a chaplain.”
Since when does the Air Force solicit potential recruits?
“Three years earlier, while still in Staten Island, I once drove past an Air Force recruiting office and, on a whim, decided to apply. I filled out a form and promptly forgot about it. Had the Air Force followed up, I would not have been able to pursue it at the time. But a glitch in the Air Force’s computer system swallowed my application for three years, causing the follow-up email to come precisely when I was wondering what my next step would be. I responded to the email…and one thing led to another.”
Rabbi Landa never had to stop and make a decision regarding his journey to the military; the guiding hand of hashgachah was clear at every step.
“The Department of Defense has a severe shortage of Jewish chaplains, and they’re always looking for more,” says Rabbi Landa. “To put it into perspective, there are three Jewish endorsers but over 200 Christian agencies.”
To be a chaplain, a master’s degree from an accredited religious institution and endorsement from a recognized ecclesiastical endorsing agency are required.
Potential chaplains must also pass a physical-fitness exam. “The Air Force wants to know that you’re healthy and ready, and they insist that you stay that way. I knew I had to lose a few pounds to avoid a severe case of covid; I was going to get it eventually, and weight was a serious risk factor. A close relative went to death’s door with no health issues other than covid and a few extra pounds. But motivation is hard. Joining the military helped. To get through military entrance processing, I had to lose close to ninety pounds.”
Current Air Force doctrine dictates that to be a good chaplain, you need to be a fully qualified officer. Chaplains go through the same baseline training as any other airmen (Air Force equivalent of soldiers). The only difference is that as a party to the Geneva Convention, the United States military does not allow chaplains to touch a weapon.
Officer training is an intense nine-week program.
“You’re woken up at four every morning. You’re doing a physical workout in the morning and taking classes for most of the day. You’re attending training events on everything from how to clear a room of terrorists to how to respond to a hurricane disaster scene. And there’s endless marching….”
Always looking out for lessons, Rabbi Landa finds the military ideas regarding training (chinuch) to be fascinating. “The military doesn’t have time for, or value in, teaching you everything. Training pretty much means creating a mock operational environment in which the consequences of failure are motivating but not dangerous. You are thrown in the deep end and told, ‘Figure it out.’ There’s minimal intervention. In this way, teaching yourself is the best way to learn.”
The officer trainees spend a week in the forest, where they are divided into groups. Each team is tasked with setting up a military installation to function in a hostile overseas environment and defend itself against tribesmen and terrorists that wander the woods. It was on one of these missions, traveling through contested territory as a chaplain to negotiate with local tribes, that Rabbi Landa and his guard were attacked in the story at the beginning of this article.
A day in the life of a chaplain
As a reservist, Captain Landa is on active duty a minimum of 24 days per year and more as needed.
“Day to day, I start work at 7:30 a.m. I meet with the deputy wing chaplain and discuss what’s going on for the day. Then there are always a thousand things happening at once. I’ve got counseling sessions and meetings. I check in with the units that I’m responsible for and make sure everybody’s feeling okay. I say a few words to inspire the units and give extra chizuk to the people who seem to need it. There are invocations, benedictions, and ceremonies. Fast-paced is not the word.”
The chaplain has several primary responsibilities: to ensure that airmen are spiritually fit to fight, to provide for accommodation of their religious needs, and to advise command. His role is to help provide for the spiritual and mental well-being of the military’s most valuable asset: its people.
About 65,000 airmen cycle through the base at which Rabbi Landa is stationed each year.
“The airmen are shell-shocked—they come straight from BMT (Basic Military Training), just eight weeks after leaving civilian life behind. When I’m asked to explain my role to new recruits, I tell them, ‘If your commander is like your dad who is a little tough and has expectations, and your drill sergeant is like your older brother who’s there to provide some tough love and direction here and there, your chaplain is your rich uncle. He’s there to talk whenever you need anything, and he has your father’s ear to smooth things over.’”
Experience has taught the higher-ups at the Department of Defense that the role of the “favorite uncle” is vital to its operations.
“There was a time when the Air Force was looking to save money and decided to cut out the entire chaplain program completely. Morale went through the floor, and they very quickly brought it back. The war in Ukraine proves that morale wins wars.”
The Air Force base is very diverse, but there’s hardly any anti-Semitism—or hate of any kind—there.
“In the military, performance, not difference, matters. We’re all wearing the same uniform; we’re all on the same team. Even within the Jewish military community, there is a level of cooperation that is rare. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, yeshivish, and Chabad all work together to provide for the needs of Jewish members.”
Being Jewish in the military is a challenge for another reason. “Most of the people I meet at the base have never seen a visibly Jewish person before; they certainly haven’t spoken to one. A lot of them are somewhat surprised to see that I’m a regular, normal person. I always remind myself that the people I meet are a clean canvas; most have no preconceived opinions of Jews. Their entire view of all Jews is going to be based on their experience with me. I define my mission as ‘sheyehei Sheim Shamayim misahev al yadecha.’”
The kiruv opportunity in the military is remarkable.
“I was in kiruv for a number of years before becoming a chaplain, and I found that 90 percent of the work is getting to the point where you can even start a conversation about Yiddishkeit. You’re doing events to get people in the door. You’re buying sushi, running lunch-and-learns, doing all kinds of things to create that relationship. In the military, that work is done for you. As soon as you walk into a room wearing your uniform, they are already open to what you have to say, ready to trust you. This is especially true at a training base, where I’m privileged to work,” Rabbi Landa says.
The first time Captain Landa set foot in the Airman Ministry Center building at his installation, a young man in uniform came running over with him.
“Hey, aren’t you Jewish?” he asked. “Are you a rabbi?”
Don* was Jewish but had not been privileged to learn much about his heritage. Rabbi Landa set a time, and the two learned together. Don came back for more and more, hungrily absorbing every word.
It turned out that Don’s grandfather was a rav who had moved from Europe to New York. His shul had turned Conservative, and the family had lost its way.
Later, Don told Rabbi Landa what had happened that day. “I was standing there, thinking about my Jewish identity. I thought to myself, G-d, if you want me to learn about Judaism, send me a sign. At that moment, the door opened, and for the first time in decades, a rabbi stepped into the room—you!”
“I was a little cowed at the responsibility of being somebody’s sign from Heaven, but I did my best,” Rabbi Landa says. “That was my introduction to being a Jewish chaplain.”
Ignorance of Yiddishkeit is so profound on the base that teaching it is an enormous opportunity. One day, Don committed to keep Shabbos. But he knew very little about it.
“The last Shabbos I was there, Don came to me, his face glowing. ‘I’m keeping Shabbos!’ he told me. ‘I’m doing it! And my non-Jewish roommate is helping me! This morning I reached for my shaver, and he reminded me that I can’t use an electronic device on Shabbos.’
“‘Wow, that’s great!’
“‘I shaved with a razor instead.’”
Rabbi Landa says, “I have no doubt that the malachim were singing in shamayim when this earnest young man shaved with a razor l’kavod Shabbos. Unfortunately, there was still a long way to go…”
Don left the base shortly thereafter—but not before setting up a chavrusa at his next installation. And his mother—who had always made sure to teach her children, “We are not Orthodox!” began to learn with a rabbi near her home, as well.
On another occasion, Matt* made an appointment to see Rabbi Landa. “Rabbi, I have a question,” he said. “I’m not Jewish, but I have a Star of David. Am I allowed to wear it?”
“I asked how he’d gotten the Star of David, and Matt told me, ‘My mother gave it to me; she’s Jewish. My family isn’t Jewish. We’re a very religious Southern Baptist family. I go to church every Sunday.’”
Matt’s paternal grandfather was none other than a Nazi—who kept an SS uniform in his attic. Matt could have gone through his entire life never knowing that he was a Jew. But a chaplain showed up on his military base with a beard and a yarmulke, and the Nazi’s grandson learned with him every day for several weeks. He continued his education afterward because once he found out he’s Jewish, he wanted to know what it means to be a Jew.
“These stories happened one after another after another after another.”
On reaching people
While he was an assistant rav in Staten Island, Rabbi Landa taught Gemara, Halachah, and Chumash at two local mesivtas. Upon moving to the greater Lakewood area, it was immediately obvious that community’s needs were different. There was hardly a shortage of qualified rebbe’im for those limudim. But there was a serious lack in another area, which is why Rabbi Landa undertook to teach eighth-, ninth-, 10th-, and 11th-grade secular studies at a Lakewood cheder and mesivta.
“I had a fabulous time,” he says. “Teaching puts you in a yeshivah environment—it’s worth it for that reason if for no other. You can be in contact with young talmidei chachamim, people who are starting out in life. Even as an English teacher, there’s a tremendous achrayus and opportunity. You can develop relationships with the bachurim and accomplish a lot by being who you are. Teaching is an untapped resource of tremendous fulfillment in the Lakewood area, and people can really gain from it.
“People, especially young people, are desperate for sincere, honest attention and interest. Often, all you have to do is listen. I see this in the Air Force as well. As a chaplain, people come in and talk for an hour and a half, and all I do is nod and reflect, and they cheer up and leave smiling.
“An airman once came into my office, quite literally planning to kill someone. He was a large, beefy fellow, and steam was exploding from his ears. I didn’t say anything to him; I just listened. As he talked, his expression slowly changed from reflecting severe stress and anger to one of peace and hope.”
The secret to effective teaching? Don’t take yourself too seriously, and enjoy your topic.
“It’s never about you,” Rabbi Landa says. “Don’t take anything personally. The success is not to your credit, and usually, neither is the failure.”
Rabbi Landa’s classes can be broad ranging and creative, covering everything from algebra and geometry to public speaking, concepts of leadership, and science in Torah. Students already know to expect questions on their math tests to come from Eruvin, Sukkah, or Bava Basra.
Writing is another medium of harbatzas Torah Rabbi Landa has explored, contributing extensive Torah writing to the Voice, the Circle, and Hamodia, among other publications. Like teaching and counseling, Rabbi Landa explains, writing is all about connecting to the audience.
“Make sure that whatever you’re writing is something you believe in, something that’s interesting to you. If you’re overwhelmed with the excitement to share something, if you’re inspired by your subject, your writing will inspire others.”
Rabbi Landa approaches all his capacities with this feeling: “I want to teach and reach not because I’m preaching, but because you’re my brother and it bothers me that you don’t have access to something so great like connection with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”
Following the path
Should a person put all his efforts into one goal or take cues from Hashem’s lead and go where they take him?
“When I started out,” says Rabbi Landa, “I was going to be in rabbanus. I had a whole career progression planned out. But Hashem led me to a lot of different places. I ended up in Staten Island and Toms River, doing things that I’d never planned to do.
“Still, my mission has remained constant: ‘Sheyehei Sheim Hashem misaheiv al yadecha’—to bring ahavas Hashem to the world in any way that’s available. When a need is presented, I always try to contribute. I’ve always tried to say yes. To do that, you don’t have to have a specific position or title or job. Anyone can make a difference.”
These days, Rabbi Landa is involved in many projects, including writing, speaking engagements, klal work, and his chaplain duties. Always, at the advice of Rav Reuven Leuchter, he is open to the next turn in the path Hashem has prepared for him.
*Name has been changed
To have Rabbi Landa speak—not just about the military—at your school, shul, or event, contact him through the Voice of Lakewood.
“You want a beautiful Shabbos seudah. You want to give over the beauty of Shabbos to your children and engage them in divrei Torah. But you had a crazy, hectic week, and you didn’t have time to prepare. Soon, one kid is sleeping in his chair, the rest are throwing things at each other, and nobody wants to eat the chicken. You get frustrated, and everything spirals out of control.”
Rabbi Landa came up with a solution. Circle Time is his weekly parshah pamphlet, chock-full of instant, exciting, and entertaining things to share at your Shabbos table. Each week, there’s a story with a vort snuck into it, riddles on the parshah, a serial story, gematria challenges, Jewish history nuggets, Halachah questions, rhymes that sum up the parshah but omit the rhyming words for the kids to figure out, and more.
“It’s very interactive and keeps kids excited and involved at the Shabbos table,” he says.
Another pet project is Drive the Daf, a clear, structured approach to the daily daf in 20 minutes or less. It is an outside-the-daf shiur Rabbi Landa created so listeners can follow the daf while commuting.
*The parshah sheets are available at chinuch.org.
**To subscribe to Drive the Daf, email firstname.lastname@example.org.