Missouri National Guard gets first Jewish chaplain in quarter-century

Col. Gary Gilmore of the Missouri National Guard swears in 1st Lt. Chaplain Karsten Kessler earlier this month. 

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Spiritual Service

Earlier this month, 1st Lt. Karsten Kessler of Maryland Heights became the first person in at least 25 years to serve as a Jewish chaplain in the Missouri National Guard.

“When I got here 28 years ago, there was a Jewish chaplain from the St. Louis area but I didn’t have the chance to get to know him before he was gone,” said State Chaplain Col. Gary Gilmore. “It’s safe to say it’s been a long time since there has been a Jewish chaplain in the Missouri National Guard.”

On July 13, Gilmore administered the oath of office to Kessler. Kessler’s son, Pfc. Benjamin Kessler, a member of Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 110th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, pinned the Jewish chaplain’s tablet insignia to his father’s uniform.

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A native of Germany, 1st Lt. Chaplain Kessler, 46, initially came to the United States on a school exchange program. After returning to Germany, he was drafted by the army there, where he served in a Bosnian refugee camp. After his service in Germany, he moved to Israel and was drafted by the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a combat medic in the Israeli army.

In 2000, he moved to St. Louis, he said, at the urging of some Bosnian friends living here. He currently works as a mechanical engineer at Vestal Corporation in Chesterfield. He is married with three children and one stepchild.

Kessler said he joined the National Guard in 2007 because of Hurricane Katrina. “I felt that with my background as a medic, I could really help in natural disasters as well. Of course, by the time I went through all the training, I wasn’t really needed for Katrina anymore but I wanted to serve as best as I could.”

Kessler explained that his Judaism really came into play when he was deployed in Kuwait in 2012-2013. “In addition to my regular duties, I was the designated faith group leader for the Jewish population, which is a volunteer position,” he said. “I had to order all the food for Passover and get everything going, plus I held Hebrew classes. But I wasn’t able to run services because I was not a chaplain.”

Gilmore said there are now 21 chaplains in the Missouri National Guard, including Kessler. They serve the 9,200 soldiers in the Missouri Army National Guard and the 2,200 soldiers in the Missouri Air National Guard. He estimated that of those 11,400, roughly 100 are Jewish.

“We have a little phrase called ‘perform or provide,’ where a chaplain either performs direct religious support for his faith group or we find someone qualified to do so,” said Gilmore, explaining that Kessler serves one weekend a month and two weeks a year. “We will use him not only as a spiritual leader for our Jewish men and women but also as a trainer for other chaplains, helping them to understand how better to meet the religious needs of our soldiers. The entire military will benefit from having specialists (like Kessler) on our team. We are really blessed.”

Then he added, without missing a beat: “I’m short of Catholic priests if you know of anyone.”

Fulfilling a need

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham explained that for years neighborhood homeless and needy people would knock on his congregation’s door in the Delmar Loop asking for food and/or money. 

“We don’t like to turn people away — we feel there is real value to tzedakah — so we would give out money, and then we switched to food cards,” said Shafner. “But the number of people has grown to like 40 or 50 a month and it had gotten quite expensive. Plus, we weren’t involving the congregation in anything meaningful.”

So Shafner and some congregants came up with a plan to open the shul up to neighborhood people in need by hosting periodic dinners, which congregants would prepare and serve. Last Sunday, about 40 people — half from the neighborhood, half from the congregation — showed up for the first Loop Community Dinner at Bais Abe.  

“It was terrific in that congregants and people in the neighborhood were interacting, getting to know one another, really talking and enjoying a meal together,” Shafner said, adding that a local singer, juggler and magician entertained during the dinner. “Those in need also received a Schnucks gift card to take with them.”  

The next Loop Community Dinner will be Sunday, Oct. 11 at Bais Abe. Contributions to help support this program can be sent to Loop Community Dinner, c/o Bais Abraham, 6910 Delmar Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri, 63130.

No ordinary Joe

Monday morning, family, friends, colleagues and former colleagues of Post-Dispatch movie critic Joe Williams woke up to shocking, tragic news — Joe, 56, had died the night before in a single-car accident in Jefferson County. He was pronounced dead on the scene.

P-D columnist Joe Holleman wrote a tremendous tribute, as did Cinema St. Louis’ Cliff Froehlich; both painted vivid portraits of the oh-so-colorful Joe Williams. Apparently, he was on his way to see a movie at his favorite venue on the planet, the drive-in movie theater. This one was the Starlite Drive-In in Cadet, Missouri.

Drive-ins were to Joe what spandex is to Kim Kardashian — a second skin. He held them dear and did all he could to save them from extinction, including patronizing as many as humanly possible in any given year. That Joe would drive more than an hour on a Sunday night to see a movie at a drive-in — a movie, most likely, that he already had seen and probably reviewed for the paper — was just the way Joe rolled.

I had the good fortune of hiring Joe at the Post-Dispatch in 1997, when I was the arts and entertainment editor. Back then, the paper was expanding its entertainment coverage and I needed a deft writer with a keen understanding of pop culture for the new Get Out (now GO) section. A colleague recommended trying out his buddy from J school days at Mizzou, Joe Williams, who in short order dazzled all of us with his quick wit, engaging writing and vast knowledge of everything from punk rock to esoteric movie trivia. 

Suffice it to say, Joe got the job, and three years later, became the paper’s movie critic. I remember him saying that being movie critic for his hometown newspaper had been a dream from the time he was 10 years old. (For those who wonder, Joe graduated from Parkway West High School in 1976.)

Joe wasn’t Jewish, but his generous spirit and caring nature mirrored the very tenets of Judaism. Joe was all about tikkun olam, repairing the world. He went about doing just that by being kind to friends and strangers alike and trying his hardest to preserve the very best of American’s landscape for generations to come. 

I can’t think of a better way to honor him than by going to a drive-in movie this summer.