Rabbi Colonel Henry Soussan of Magen David Sephardic Congregation has a unique employment situation, serving as a community rabbi for the Rockville synagogue since Oct. 2023 while also being an active-duty U.S. military chaplain teaching courses at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
Soussan said that while balancing both responsibilities is difficult, he’s managing them well and is working toward building a highly inclusive synagogue community, leaning upon his experience dealing with people from all walks of life during his time in the military.
“I think that the community appreciates my worldly outlook, because I’ve been places and I’ve dealt a lot with the non-Jewish world by having a little bit of an unusual perspective, unusual for an Orthodox rabbi,” Soussan said.
Soussan certainly has that worldly experience, having spent over two decades in the military since he first joined as a chaplain after 9/11, and having earned a master’s degree in Germany, a Ph.D. in history from the University of Sussex in England and rabbinic ordination in Israel.
That experience allows Soussan to have a well-rounded view on how to help his congregants and the broader community, because working with a diverse and largely non-Jewish population has been a staple of his job for decades.
“As a chaplain in the military, the vast majority of your ‘congregation’ is non-Jewish. And you have to take care of your unit,” Soussan said. “You have to have a mindset that you want to help people regardless. You meet them wherever they are, not where you want them to be.”
Soussan was deployed as a chaplain with a unit on multiple tours of active duty during several U.S. military conflicts across the Middle East, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, until he was placed on assignment in the D.C. area to teach at NDU.
“That [professorship] is one position that they have here [at NDU] for military chaplains and it meets the credentials for my military career. I was chosen to fill this position here. So now I’m teaching military strategy, ethical warfare, ethics and leadership and those types of things at the National Defense University,” Soussan said.
The professor position ended up being the first domino in a series of events that led Soussan to assuming the community rabbi role at Magen David Sephardic Congregation. When Soussan and his family moved to the D.C. area, they were able to choose where they lived, which he noted is not typical for military assignments.
Soussan said his wife suggested that the family move into a local Jewish community, and they moved close to Magen David, becoming members at the synagogue almost immediately. He said that after a year of membership, he was approached by the synagogue leaders to fill the rabbi position, which led him to where he is now.
“Eventually, the [Magen David] board approached me, and they said, ‘Look you’re a chaplain, you’re a rabbi, how about it?’ That’s basically how it happened. I’ve always helped out as a rabbi and I would always help out with services, but I never became the official rabbi until October because it just happened to work,” Soussan said.
Now Soussan has been putting all his skills to use at Magen David and in managing his time between two jobs. He laughed and said that it’s difficult and he doesn’t get a lot of sleep, but he makes it work.
“It’s a challenge, but doable. I have to organize well, and the military taught me that. It taught me to be organized and to utilize my time properly,” Soussan said.
Soussan is also looking to use his time to create a warm and welcoming community at the synagogue, which is something he said is based in Sephardic tradition and what he calls the authentic supporting approach.
That method is based around accepting all members of what Soussan said is a diverse congregation despite small differences in the ways they practice their religion.
“[Historically] If somebody was not following the strict path, it was not condoned, but that person was still a part of the community and the rabbi still had the responsibility to take care of the person,” Soussan said.
He added that the approach applies very well to the Magen David community, which he says is very open-minded and works hard to embrace everyone. Those elements of the congregation made the move into the rabbi role a smooth transition for Soussan.
Now looking forward to the next several months as rabbi, Soussan is planning to do more work to promote that inclusiveness and bring more young Jews into the congregation and give them a place to explore their Judaism.
“That will be my whole job — to make people just better understand their role as Jews in American society and to be able to convey that to the outside. Our goal is really to be a community that shines towards the outside as well,” Soussan said.