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MG Jeff Jacobs, USA (Ret.)

As a second-generation Jewish American soldier, I’ve been a part of the Army Jewish community my whole life. I was tutored for my bar mitzvah by an Army rabbi (and, true to form, the Army issued short-notice orders to my dad a few months before my bar mitzvah, so my mom threw away the printed invitations, we moved, and I had to learn a new haftarah). On various deployments, I’ve led services in a tent in Haiti and attended them in the old city of Jerusalem, in a bullet-riddled synagogue in Sarajevo, and in Saddam Hussein’s palace. All in all, I spent 18 years as a Jewish “Army brat,” four years as a Jewish cadet at West Point, and 35 years as a Jewish Army officer. I’ve continued to be active in the Army Jewish community my since my retirement seven years ago.

As you might expect, I’ve seen the Army Jewish community change in the over six decades I’ve been a member of it. Many of these changes are for the better. Not all that long ago, the Jewish Welfare Board was the only organization devoted to caring for Jewish soldiers. Today, there are several more organizations that join JWB in supporting Jewish service members and their families by, among other things, providing Passover care packages, prayer books, and other Jewish essentials. Aleph was at the forefront of convincing the Army to change its policy to allow beards for religious reasons.

But some of the changes I’ve seen in the Army Jewish community concern me (and my observations here are limited to the Army). And when I say “in the Army Jewish community,” the key word is “community.” The efforts by many organizations and individuals to better care for Jewish soldiers are laudable, but most of these efforts are focused on individuals. On the flip side, I’ve seen a subtle but steady decline of the Army Jewish community as a whole and of individual Jewish communities on Army installations. I’d like to focus my observations on these issues, for as we know, kehillah—community—is the fundamental organizational structure of Jewish life.

I’ll cite three examples. First, as a Jewish military child, I received the foundation of my Jewish education on Army posts—and there was a Jewish chaplain assigned to every post I lived on as a child, with the exception of one of the smallest posts in the Army (and even there, a Jewish chaplain assigned to the post as a student at the Army’s Command and General Staff College nonetheless assumed the role of the post Jewish chaplain). Religious education programs for Jewish children were at one time ubiquitous throughout the Army, just as they are in civilian Jewish communities, usually supervised by the chaplain and staffed by Jewish soldiers and their spouses.

That paradigm is largely gone. Army posts with education programs for Jewish children are now the exception rather than the rule. Jewish Army families are often left to fend for themselves when it comes to educating their kids Jewishly—and remember that many Army posts are not located in or near major civilian Jewish communities.

Likewise, I’m increasingly concerned about the viability of Shabbat services on some Army installations. I fear that, as a community, we’re regressing.

In historical terms, it wasn’t all that long ago (at least from my perspective!) that chapel was mandatory for cadets at West Point, and Jewish cadets were forced to choose between attending either Protestant or Catholic services on Sunday mornings. There were no Jewish services. That eventually changed, but chapel was still mandatory and was still on Sunday mornings; Jewish cadets still were denied the opportunity to attend Shabbat services. That eventually changed, too; Jewish cadets, even during initial training for incoming cadets, were afforded the opportunity to attend Shabbat services, albeit, in my day, in a chemistry lab. Chapel is no longer mandatory, and Jewish cadets attend Friday evening services in the only synagogue (as opposed to a military chapel) on a United States Army installation.

Similarly, in the early days of my career, Friday evening services were conducted on every Army post. Even basic trainees were afforded the opportunity to attend Shabbat services—even if it meant transporting them to an off‐post synagogue. On many training installations today, however, Shabbat services are no more. Training schedules for basic training mandate religious services for Sundays, so that’s when Jewish services are conducted. I’ve had an installation chaplain tell me, point blank, that he felt no need to institute Jewish services on his post on Shabbat.

Finally, there is the overarching issue of where the Army Jewish community fits into the larger Army religious community. I worry that many would like to make that larger community less pluralistic and inclusive, and more Christian.

Take, for example, the issue of public prayer, usually an invocation or benediction at a ceremony. Until recently, the Army stressed, especially to its chaplains, that such prayers should be inclusive and nonsectarian. Throughout the majority of my career, if I voiced my objection to an Army chaplain who offered an overtly Christian prayer, the chaplain’s response was almost always an apology, and often a “thank you” for reminding them that there were Jews (and other non-Christians) in the Army.

Today, however, such an objection to many a Christian chaplain is as likely to meet with indignation and defensiveness as with an apology. As a senior commander, I had an informal policy that public prayers at mandatory events could be offered within my command only by chaplains, because I trusted chaplains to understand the importance of pluralism and inclusiveness. Were I a commander today, I would no longer have that implicit trust. Indeed, I recently had a conversation with a very senior and influential Army chaplain, who expressed to me that overtly Christian prayers are just fine, that no one can tell a chaplain how to pray, and that the Army Chaplain School—the Army Chaplain School—instructs chaplains to offer public prayers in their own religious traditions (and that chaplain also complained about Christians being persecuted for expressing their religion publicly—forgive me for noting here the irony of a member of the Christian clergy complaining to a Jew about religious persecution).

As much as I’m delighted by the good changes I’ve seen in the Army Jewish community, I’m concerned about the not-so-good changes. Some of these changes are rightly attributable to societal transformation and to the demographic evolution of the American Jewish community. But that doesn’t make them any less worrisome to me.

Those societal and demographic changes, I believe, are largely responsible for producing a Christian chaplain corps in the Army today—that is, the overwhelming majority of Army chaplains—that is much less familiar with Judaism, and therefore much less attuned to the spiritual needs of the Army Jewish communities that those chaplains are there to support, than the forebears of those chaplains were. I read an anecdote not long ago in a Jewish veterans’ publication that described a Christian Navy chaplain directing a non-observant Jewish service member to arrange and conduct a Passover seder for the Jewish soldiers aboard the chaplain’s ship. That chaplain participated in the seder because he knew Hebrew and the Jewish sailor did not. Those days are, for the most part, past—and not just the part about the Christian chaplain knowing Hebrew, but also the part about the Christian chaplain knowing about the seder and ensuring, on his own initiative, that Jewish personnel had a seder to attend. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I wonder how many Jewish basic trainees on Army posts without a Jewish chaplain were denied the opportunity to participate in any High Holiday experience last year because of the combination of the pandemic and installation chaplains who were not familiar enough with Judaism to understand the significance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Positive changes aside, these other changes, in my view, are not okay. We as the military Jewish community should not accept them in silence; the leaders of the Army’s Jewish community and of the Army’s Jewish communities, chaplains and others alike, need to address them head on. Similarly, outside organizations need to understand this dynamic and get involved when feasible and appropriate. Those organizations might consider using their influence to focus externally as well as internally, with the aim of raising the profile of the Army Jewish community within the larger Army religious community, and, importantly, within the civilian Jewish community.

What’s more, I wonder whether these changes—societal, demographic, and otherwise—have affected and will continue to affect efforts to recruit and retain Jewish soldiers. Yes, we Jews proudly serve as American soldiers, as we have for the entire 246 years of the US Army’s history—but not nearly in the proportion we once did (not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, I realize, but nonetheless true).

For all the positive change that I’ve seen, I believe that we, the military Jewish community, have some work to do. But that said, I still feel the same way now as I did about 12 years ago, when I was privileged to be the speaker for the 25th anniversary celebration of the dedication of the West Point Jewish chapel. I said then that the two things that define me as a person are being a Jew and being an American soldier. I’m still proud to call myself a Jewish American soldier.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey A. Jacobs, US Army (Ret.), graduated from West Point in 1979 and served for 35 years in all three components of the United States Army as an infantry and civil affairs officer. He serves as the Jewish lay leader at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and as a vice president and member of the board of directors of the West Point Jewish Chapel Fund. He is also the ba’al korei and occasional shaliach tzibbur for Beth Shalom Synagogue in Columbia, South Carolina.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.