Chaplain (Colonel) Laurence Bazer is a decorated member of the United States Armed Forces and currently serves as deputy director of the National Guard Bureau’s Office of the Joint Chaplain in Arlington, Virginia. Bazer, who has served in the military for 35 years, has overseen and been involved with chaplaincy efforts for a multitude of important events, including being on the ground during 9/11 and coordinating the response to the Boston Marathon bombing. Bazer was also deployed to Afghanistan where he served the troops, and he is the senior ranking Jewish chaplain in the U.S. military.
Bazer has a range of responsibilities in his position, where he administers the religious responses within what he calls the 54 state territories and D.C., and advises the chief of the National Guard Bureau.
“If there are wildfires in California and Nevada and there are chaplains called out, we get that information and advise what the issues are to the chief of the National Guard Bureau. We help with hurricanes, blizzards, the whole COVID-19 response, overseeing what was happening in the states with civil unrest post-George Floyd’s murder, and the attack on the Capitol [Jan. 6]. So, in all those different elements I would advise, sort of oversee the states, give them advice and then take all that information and give guidance up to our leadership,” Bazer said.
Bazer is also involved with an initiative called the State Partnership Program, through which U.S. states have a relationship with a foreign country and have religious engagement with their partners. He added that sometimes he’s tasked with overseeing the development of chaplaincy in countries that don’t have them.
“For example, Iowa works with Kosovo, Ohio works with Serbia, Colorado’s partner is Jordan. And when chaplains have religious engagements with chaplains of the country, that’s called a religious engagement in the state partnership. Again, I oversee that, coordinate it. I help states sometimes even think how to help the partnering nation maybe develop a chaplaincy or think about what a chaplaincy could look like,” Bazer said.
And the role of the chaplaincy in the military is deeply important for both the service members who benefit from guidance and the leadership as they’re able to get a better understanding of what’s going on with their people.
“The chaplains on the ground are seeing [conditions and] they’re reporting that up, and we can say, hey, there might be issues with family relations because they’re deployed or activated to care for the state … But the idea is that I would say our military is very key in that it’s not just, hey, we’ve got missions to do. We look at the whole soldier or service member and their families. And so, a key part in helping in that advisement are the chaplains,” Bazer said.
This experience and deep understanding of a chaplain’s role that Bazer possesses comes from a lifetime of dealing with a diverse set of situations where he’s been needed, including being on site in New York during 9/11 and on deployment to Afghanistan.
Bazer was living in New York at the time and served as a congregational rabbi in Long Island while being in the National Guard there. He learned a lot about how to deal with tragedy during 9/11 and said that some of the scenes he remembers were incredibly powerful as he went about his work.
“I heard ‘Hey, Chaplain,’ – I wrote chaplain on the back of my army helmet – a firefighter asked me, ‘Hey, could you say a prayer?’ And we started talking and I said, ‘Did you lose anyone?’ And he said no. But then he pointed out, he said I know about 10 firefighters that are in there, which was very, very powerful. And we talked a little bit and at the end, I said a prayer with us together and I had tears rolling down my face,” Bazer said.
Then, 10 years later, Bazer was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he faced an equally unique set of circumstances while on base in a foreign country during a time of heavy military operations.
Bazer was working on coordinating the religious experience for 10,000 U.S. soldiers on the base, and he noted that they put together numerous services and programs, sometimes with everyone but the chaplains armed due to the threat of attack.
He made special mention of the importance of being a rabbi for the Jewish soldiers, and that they were able to get a menorah and have chefs cook latkes for a service that brought those soldiers a piece of home.
“For the Jewish personnel, it was really important for them to be there and to have a rabbi to be able to lead services and just to gather together for those moments,” Bazer said.
Things have become less intense over the past several years for Bazer than 9/11 and deployment overseas, and while his retirement from the military is this spring, he’s still not ready to be done impacting Jewish lives.
Bazer said he’ll be taking on a new role as the director of the Jewish Welfare Boards Jewish Chaplains Council, where he’ll oversee all the Jewish military chaplains and Virginia chaplains. He called the move a great next step on his rabbinic journey.
“I’m not going to go back to the pulpit world. When I’m finished, I’m going to go into this new role. It’s been an amazing journey that ultimately brings me closer to God and to our people. Not the traditional path that most rabbis and Jews may take, but one that has been truly sacred,” Bazer said.