By Musia Kaplan
Some kids shrug when asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Others can’t decide between becoming a princess, a teacher, or an A-list actor. Whenever Miriam Lefkowitz was asked what she wanted to be, she always had the same response: “I want to be a soldier.”
This was a completely unexpected response for an Orthodox Jewish girl in New York. Her teachers thought she was joking; her parents hoped it was a passing phase. “Everybody told me it was not for me,” says Miriam. “Eventually I believed them. I was a studious, shy kid—not a rule-breaker by any measure—so I just kept quiet. But my dream never faded.”
After high school and a visit to Israel, Miriam told her parents she wanted to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Several months later, Miriam took a flight back to Israel.
Miriam walked into the IDF recruitment center and told the bored-looking officer behind the desk that she wanted to enlist. To her dismay, he handed her a draft date starting in a year. After speaking to other Lone Soldiers—young men and women from other countries who enlisted in the IDF—Miriam discovered that this was fairly typical. The only way to speed up the process was to call the recruitment center every day and nudge.
So Miriam called. And called. And called. Five days later, the recruitment center told her they had an opening and moved Miriam’s draft delayed date from one year to three days.
Three days later, in December 2016, Miriam traveled by bus to Michvei
Alon, a military base in the Galilee, for basic training. For the next two-and-a half months, she spent her days learning Israeli history, how to shoot an M-16, military rules and regulations, and—most importantly—discipline.
After completing basic training, Miriam went to combat training where she received specialized training for her chosen field, the Magav (Israel Border Police). Her training included Krav Maga, using grenades and different weapons, and how to handle demonstrations and riots.
After a year-and-a-half of service, Miriam returned home to Monsey, New York and found a job as a nanny. Despite being an adrenaline junkie and an expert with a rifle, Miriam also loves working with children. Still, it didn’t take long for a familiar yearning to creep back into her heart. She felt called to continue her military journey, but was not sure how.
On the spur of the moment in fall of 2019, Miriam drove from her home in New York to a nearby Army recruitment office and asked if there was a chaplain to speak to. The Army recruiter connected Miriam with Chaplain (then-CPT) David Ruderman, the Jewish chaplain stationed at West Point, and they spoke over the phone.
“Is it possible to be a practicing Jew in the US Army?” Miriam asked. “It’s possible, but very difficult,” Chaplain Ruderman responded.
There are few religious Jews in the military, and even fewer are women.
Ruderman recommended that she reach out to Aleph Institute and Kosher Troops, which she did immediately, reaching Rabbi Elie Estrin, the Aleph Institute’s Military Personnel Liaison. She bombarded him with questions. “Can I keep kosher in the Army? Will they respect Shabbat? Can I pray daily? How can I keep kosher?” Rabbi Estrin patiently answered each of her questions, and even spoke with Miriam’s mother over the phone, alleviating some of her fears.
After several weeks of research and debate, with a prayer on her lips, she enlisted in the New York Army National Guard.
Rabbi Estrin gave Miriam one key piece of advice beforehand: “Whatever standard you want to keep in the military, you need to commit to it one hundred percent. You can’t be wishy-washy. The military is required to respect a person’s freedom of religion, but they will be skeptical until you prove that you are serious. If you ask for permission to pray and then you don’t actually pray, they will stop accommodating you. Be upfront about what your observances are, and then stick to them.”
Rabbi Estrin’s advice forced Miriam to examine her faith in a way that she never had before. “What is non-negotiable for me?” she asked herself. “What will I never compromise?
Chaplain Ruderman put together a religious accommodation request for Miriam, outlining the special permissions she needed as a religious Jew, including not writing on Shabbat, ritually washing her hands upon waking and before meals, and keeping a strictly kosher diet.
On her own, Miriam also put together an informal booklet with background information on pertinent Jewish laws. She included fun facts about Judaism and attached the dates and times for Shabbat and Jewish holidays. On the first day of basic training, Miriam handed all her drill sergeants copies of the RAR (religious accommodation request) as well as her personal booklet.
“The US Army isn’t a Jewish place, but that is where I truly found my stride in my identity as a Jewish woman and soldier,” says Miriam. “I knew I had to prove myself, so I was extra particular and consistent with my religious practices. I woke up early every morning to pray. I washed my hands from a collapsible cup. I did not touch my phone on Shabbat. When my officers saw how determined I was to stay true to who I am, they began to respect me.”
Miriam’s determination was consistently put to the test as soon as she arrived at basic training. Despite numerous reassurances that there would be kosher food on the base, there was none. Apples, oranges, and a couple of breakfast bars with kosher certification were her only sustenance. While running around for hours a day and performing grueling physical exercise, Miriam’s stomach was growling with hunger. Kosher MREs arrived at the base only after two weeks.
“Honestly, I barely ate anything until I received permission for my parents to send me kosher food. They sent me packages with dried fruit, nuts, crackers, and tuna. They also sent me grape juice for Shabbat. Between the MREs
and the supplemental food, I was no longer starving, but to be honest, I was never exactly satisfied either.” But a standard is a standard, and she stuck with it, despite the difficulties.
Miriam felt more than just food cravings—as the only religious Jew on her base, she felt that the job of creating the atmosphere of Shabbat each week rested solely on her shoulders. “Even though in my community only married women light Shabbat candles, I decided to start lighting Shabbat candles in the Army. It was a way of creating a physical sense that Shabbat is here, a feeling of entering an alternate zone of reality.” With the candles illuminating her table, Miriam would make kiddush on grape juice, eat a simple Shabbat meal, and sing zemirot (Shabbat songs) to herself. Though nothing like Shabbat at home, she felt a deep sense of peace in her soul.
sense of peace in her soul. Every Jewish holiday, it was again up to Miriam to bring the spirit of the holiday to her base. On Chanukah, she Facetimed with her family and lit her small military-sanctioned menorah at the same time as they did. Miriam invited several of her friends to join her for the festivities and they sang Chanukah songs together.
When the holiday of Purim arrived, Miriam had already graduated and had been sent to Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. “I had no idea how I would listen to the Book of Esther read from a scroll out in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “I again called Aleph, and Rabbi Estrin connected me with the Chabad shluchim in Oklahoma City. Several boys drove hours to reach my base and read the megillah to me. When I found out they were on their way, I ran around the base searching for other Jews and found three other Jewish soldiers in different companies. The bochurim brought us mishloach manot packages and $1 bills to give to tzedakah (charity). We ate a festive meal together, sang, and had a blast. It ended up being the best Purim of my life.”
In February 2022 and 2023, she traveled to Bal Harbour, Florida to attend the Aleph Institute’s Military Symposium and Shabbaton. At the symposium, more than 100 military chaplains, service members, and military wives gathered to enjoy a weekend of growth, inspiration, and connection. For the first time in her military career, Miriam felt that she was not alone. She met Jews from all backgrounds and ranks who, just like her, were members of the US Military and striving to balance two worlds. “It was incredible to be surrounded by people who understand me completely,” says Miriam.
She returned home from the symposium with a renewed sense of her identity and purpose.
Miriam has grown accustomed to receiving questions from people in the military about her lifestyle. “People ask me why I follow these ‘weird’ customs,” she says. “Such as, why can I not flick on a light on Saturday? I actually appreciate all the questions, because they force me to seek out answers that I’ve never searched for before.”
Lefkowitz is reflective on her experiences. “Being in the US Army has strengthened my observance and I am much more passionate than I was before. I read the Jewish-American Warrior cover to cover, and then I share it with others in the military who are curious about Judaism. I ask rabbis and chaplains for explanations about Judaism. The more I learn, the more I love it.”
this article was originally published in the shavuos 5782 issue of the Jewish-American Warrior.