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An interview with LCpl Yaakov Grossman, USMC

Tell me a little about your family – it’s a pretty diverse one, from what I understand.

My parents don’t come from a religious background, but came to Judaism through Chabad. I’m smack in middle of 9 siblings, who are spread across the US doing a wide variety of things: I have one brother who’s basically the Chief Rabbi of North Dakota, and a younger brother currently in BMT in Lackland AFB. In fact, my Dad became a Civil Air Patrol chaplain because of that brother, Laivi. I convinced Laivi to join CAP, and after driving him to meetings, my Dad became intrigued by it as well, and eventually decided to join himself. Now my father, Chaplain, Captain Dovid Grossman, is CAP’s Diversity Officer for the MidWest Region. Laivi did extremely well in CAP; in fact, he received the Spaatz Award, CAP’s highest cadet honor, and graduated Basic Training as an Honor Graduate.

Why did you join the Marines?

I grew up Orthodox, and Judaism has a lot of rules. At some point as a teenager, I was reading “Marine Sniper”, the biography of the legendary GySgt Carlos Hathcock, and I noticed that the Marines also had a devotion to discipline and what’s right. And ever since then, I’ve wanted to have an EGA (Eagle, Globe and Anchor) on my chest.

You joined with a close friend, correct? How did that happen?

About three years ago, I was working as a manager in a store in NYC, and I realized that I was about to be too old to enlist in the Marines, so I quit my job and moved back to Chicago to get the proper credentials to enlist. On my drive back home, I called my closest friend, Mendel Goldbloom. I said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. How about we join the Marines together?” Without blinking an eye, he said, “Ok! Let’s do it!” That was the beginning of a special journey. We entered Boot Camp together, and were placed in the same platoon. Our command quickly noticed Mendel’s leadership abilities, and when a squad leader was fired, they gave him the job. He was promoted to PFC right out of Boot Camp.

What was the point when you thought, “I’m now a US Marine…”?

Already in Boot Camp, I looked down and thought, “I’m wearing these cammies – oh boy!” In the Marines, we don’t get name tapes until you pass certain objectives. And so when my name was put on, it was like, “Wow – now my name’s on it too!” But the real culmination is at the end of the Crucible, watching sunrise from on top of the Reaper, having the EGA handed to you by your drill instructor – that’s the moment!

Did you have any uniquely Jewish experiences in Boot Camp?

Actually, several very special experiences. In Boot Camp, at the end of every day, we were given time to have a prayer circle. The Protestants, Catholics, and LDS all had their own circles. So one night, I turned to Mendel, who was in the rack next to me, and said, “Mendel, let’s go make our own prayer circle!” He agreed, and we went out and said Shema together. The next day, some of the other guys came over to us and said, “That was really funny – you made your own prayer circle in a fake language!” We said, “No, that’s Hebrew, and that was a real prayer!” The next night, another Jew in our platoon joined us. Later, we convinced some others who didn’t have a specific religion to join us, and we started to say Shema in English for their benefit.

At some point, some of the people that were in the other religious circles started using the time blaming each other for the day’s failures, instead of praying. So several more people asked to join us. We started a new custom – we’d go around the circle, and ask, “What in today’s experience were you grateful for?” Of course, in Boot Camp, there isn’t much to be grateful for, but it was an excellent exercise in morale. Some days, Mendel would take the book GPS for the Soul, which we’d received in package from Aleph and had been  allowed to keep with our personal belongings, and read a few lines out loud. Later, one of our regular participants was confined to quarters, so he wasn’t allowed to leave his rack to join our circle. So we moved our circle to him, and we read a chapter of Psalms in English for him. He was moved to tears.

During this time, Passover was coming up, and our chaplain received Aleph’s holiday care package, which included the seder foods, as well as prayer books. It was really nice to get those prayer books, because we began to have services Friday night. And because Aleph had reached out to the chaplain and told him of the importance of the seders, the chaplain worked with command to allow us to run a seder in the chapel by ourselves! The first night of Passover we had six recruits from across the depot, and the second night, it was just three of us from my platoon. It was very memorable, something that most others that go through Marine Boot Camp don’t get to experience: eating chocolate matzah and eating jelly candies by ourselves!

Later, we moved up north for LandNav, rifle qualifications, and the Crucible. During that time, we were told that we would only be eating MREs. When we were collecting our gear from the supply depot, I noticed that there was a pallet of Kosher for Passover MREs sitting there. I asked the supply guy what they were for, and he just mumbled something incoherent to me. I told the Drill Sergeant about them, and he pulled some strings and arranged that we’d be able to have those kosher MREs for ourselves.

So you and PFC Goldbloom built up quite the brotherhood…

Yes. As monumental as the Crucible is for most Marines, it was even more meaningful to complete it with my best friend, and it forged our friendship even deeper. It was amazing to have the Goldbloom and the Grossman families celebrating together at our graduation. After graduation we spent time together on leave, and then we were split from each other to go our own paths, since we had different MOS’s. He went infantry, and I went to Combat Training (MCT) before going to intel school. At MCT, I got the opportunity to spend a bit more time with him. At some point I passed him while he was in middle of some infantry training, and we waved frantically at each other until his instructor told him to shut up and focus on the exercise. After MCT, I went for follow on training in Texas. Two months later, Mendel finished his training, and was stationed at Twenty Nine Palms with the 3rd Corps Marines.

We kept in contact: he’d tell me abut the rough life in the infantry, and I’d share with him my sitting in front of the computer experiences of the POG (Personnel-Other-than-Grunt) life, living it up with the Airmen at Goodfellow AFB.

On the eighth day of Sukkot, I had a regular day of training and was on my way to formation when I received the call that my close friend, PFC Menachem Goldbloom (may G-d avenge his death) was killed by a drunk driver in a car accident. My command was very generous and gave me RA, and I was able to come home and be a pallbearer for his funeral and sit shiva with his family.

Mendel was an individual who cared about others, no matter who they were or how long he knew them. He would oftentimes go out of his way to help people to have a better moment and a better day. It was amazing to see him to see him transform into a leader as a Marine… I really admired the way he was always looking out for other Marines under him – whether by singing and making people laugh during a miserable hike, or whatever. Caring is the best way to lead, and he understood that better than a lot of people I know. I’d love for the reader of this article to learn from my friend: even if you’re not having the greatest day, turn around and help another person, in memory of PFC Mendel Goldbloom.

What a loss! May his memory always be blessed…
You became the Jewish Lay Leader at Goodfellow AFB. Tell us a little about how that happened.

While I was at Goodfellow, I bumped into some Jewish Airmen. After talking with them, I asked them if they wanted to put on Tefillin. They got very excited, and we put on Tefillin together. The High Holidays were approaching, and now that I knew there were other Jews who wanted to celebrate them as well, I realized that I needed to step up a little bit. My parents sent me care packages and make sure that I have everything I need for myself, but I didn’t have anything for everyone else. So I reached out to Aleph and other groups, and everything was completely taken care of: Aleph also gave me a Lay Leader approval letter so the base would allow me to run holiday services, and supplied me with a Sukkah, my brother Yonah from North Dakota sent me a lulav and etrog, and CH David Becker from the CA ARNG sent me a phenomenal spread of food. It was wonderful: soldiers, marines and airmen all celebrating the holidays together in middle of Texas!

What do you see in your future in the Marines?

Currently I’m at Camp Pendleton, learning more about what my job entails, and trying to learn more and be as much asset to the USMC as I’m able. I’m just trying to absorb as much knowledge as I can, and pass it on to the Marines junior to me.

If there was one thing want to tell your fellow Enlisted, what would that be?

Get to know your chaplains – they’re awesome. Look, there’s still a stigma in the military about mental health, but for me, going to a chaplain was more beneficial than anything mental health could have done for me. There are chaplains who are willing to help you for anything. It doesn’t matter what religion you are or they are – if you let them know that you need help, they’ll do everything they can to help you. Also, getting to know your chaplains doesn’t force you to be more religious. It helps you to be a better Marine, Soldier, Airman or Sailor by helping your spiritual health.

Originally published in the Passover 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.