Observant Jews in the Armed Forces will likely be facing renewed hardship as a result of the Pentagon’s recent decision to cancel the procurement of kosher field rations, commonly known as Meals Ready to Eat (MRE). In April 2013, a solicitation for bids was issued by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) for the production of kosher and halal MREs for 5 years, but in early January the agency decided to amend the solicitation and eliminate the kosher part of the order.
In response to this development, Agudath Israel of America has written to Major General Donald Rutherford, Chief Chaplain of the Army and Chairman of the Defense Department’s Armed Forces Chaplains Board (DOD/AFCB), to express “deep concern” over the decision. The Orthodox Jewish organization further stated that even if DLA intends, as it has informally indicated, to reissue a kosher solicitation in the future, Jewish service personnel will still feel the immediate and longer-term impact of the cancellation.
“As things stand now, no kosher MREs are being produced and, as previous stock has become depleted, there is essentially nothing currently available for Jewish members of the Armed Forces who require rations that meet their religious dietary needs,” stated Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director. “How long this state of affairs will continue is unknown.”
In the “best case” scenario, the letter notes, issuing a new solicitation on an “expedited schedule” could take months to complete. In fact, the solicitation put out in April 2013 was awarded in January 2014, and that covered only halal. The letter further points out that past experience is not encouraging. When the kosher/halal MRE program was cancelled in 1999, DLA stated its intention to re-solicit — a process that normally takes several months. The new solicitation was issued 14 years later, in April 2013. Kosher MREs were provided on an ad hoc basis. No such arrangement is in effect at present.
While it could take months, even years, for a solicitation process to complete its course, Rabbi Cohen points out that, “Respect for religious rights and the duty to accommodate the dietary needs of Jewish service personnel remain fully intact and in effect. It is incumbent upon the Pentagon to issue and award a new solicitation as expeditiously as possible and to make available now, by contract or other means, the appropriate supplies that will address the problem in the interim — no matter how long it takes.”
The kosher MRE finds its origins in the early 1990s, during the first Gulf War, when numerous service personnel and their families contacted Agudath Israel and related the problem — the near impossibility — of observing Jewish dietary laws during deployment. The issue was promptly brought to the attention of the Pentagon and, with the involvement and cooperation of Jewish military chaplains, other high-ranking DOD/AFCB officials, and kosher food producers, the procurement of kosher MREs was approved and the program eventually went into operation.
“We are greatly dismayed by this decision,” observed Rabbi Cohen. “But as it comes at a time when the Pentagon is demonstrating greater interest in broadening religious accommodation in the military, we are confident that the Department will find a way to address the dietary needs of Jewish service personnel, now and in the future.”