By Ch, Maj Elie Estrin, USAFR
Commanders like to talk about the “30,000 foot view”. Decisions are ultimately about perspective, and those on the lower tiers usually don’t have the broader vision of those on the top. However, the view from the trenches can oftentimes be just as valuable, and the truth is usually found in a well-balanced meshing of the information. As Aleph’s Military Personnel Liaison alongside being a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserve, I am fortunate to get information feeds from a variety of angles about the struggles and sacrifices of Jews doing their best trying to serve G-d while serving their country, regardless of rank or station. I also speak regularly with chaplains of every religion and denomination in our efforts to ensure Jewish service members have all their religious needs met. Considering that, here are 5 interrelated points we wish every Jewish Service Member knew:
1. You’re not the only one!
Several times, I’ve heard from someone, “I’m the only Jew on this base,” only to hear the exact same line from someone else at the same base! While we certainly are a minority (official guesstimates have us at 14,500 Jews, or about 1.5% of the Armed Forces), chances are that there are plenty other members of the Tribe around, but they’re doing little to advertise themselves as such. That, as we will note below, is a significant issue, and one that you can help rectify.
Your first course of action is to reach out your unit chaplain, and have him reach out to the installation chaplain. In the Air Force, installations have an Alpha Roster with a list of the service members and their religious preference. Other branches have similar lists. While the installation will not release that information, at least make sure you are on the current list so that you will be informed if there are any Jewish programs scheduled, and convince others to do so as well. Along with that, make sure that your religious preference is clearly marked as “Jewish” in DEERS and similar DoD paperwork.
In addition, be visibly Jewish: the Menorah you place on your desk, the Mezuzah you have on your dorm room (when permitted, of course), or even Jewish holiday decor, will pull co-workers out of their shell. At the very least, they will see that they are not alone.
2. Chaplains are legally mandated Religious Accommodation officers.
Some Jewish service members might feel uncomfortable around gentile chaplains, due to the cross or crescent on their chest. But that is a misunderstanding of the actual responsibilities of the chaplain: his or her legal responsibility is to provide you with your religious needs. This is not a side aspect of what they do; it’s actually the basis of the winning argument in Katcoff v. Marsh, a civil suit against the military chaplaincy. The suit was won largely through the efforts of Army Chaplain (Brigadier General) Israel Drazin, himself an Orthodox Jew, who argued that the military, represented by the commander, has an obligation to provide for the constitutional right of free exercise of religion of his soldiers, and chaplains are the officers entrusted by the commander with that, regardless of their own individual religion. (Parenthetically, our Endorser, Rabbi Dresin, was part of that defense team as well.) So ignore the religious emblem, and tell the chaplain what you need. And when you’re not getting what you need from command, speak to the chaplain. And if the chaplain isn’t assisting you… well, he’s not doing his job.
3. When Jewish Service Members don’t ask for their religious needs, the military feels there is no reason to service them.
Jewish chaplains are eager to be utilized as Jewish chaplains. The military often excuses lack of Jewish programming by saying, “Well, we’ve received no requests for Jewish holiday support.” And that’s probably true. Jewish Service Members are more likely than not to avoid putting in requests, because we’d rather not be considered “needy”. We’d rather just do our job and be professional about it.
But the “we’ve had no requests” response is problematic. As we said before, the military has a legal obligation to provide for our exercise of religion; and how many Jewish E-2s are going to ask their NCO for assistance keeping their religion? Truth be told, at this point, the military’s senior leadership has come around to understanding the morale and resilience value-added that religion brings its soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, but that doesn’t seem to filter all the way down the enlisted chain.
The reality is that money should be available to support Jewish holidays when budgets are prepared well enough in advance, the same way there are funds to support Christian holidays. But when there are no requests with enough time to properly plan, no money is allocated.
Ultimately, the problem is self-inflicted: no requests for anything Jewish leads to no effort on the part of the chaplaincy to service Jews. And the chaplains simply loop back to problem #1 – “There are no Jews here…”
One final point: when the Chapel program does go through the effort to put on a Jewish holiday program, please show up, and encourage others to do so… even if you have access to a Jewish program outside the base. Your presence makes an impact, and unfortunately, your absence does as well. We all need to support the military’s efforts to support Jewish programming in order to keep it a priority.
4. Jewish Lay Leaders cover down wherever there are no Jewish Chaplains – and we need more of them.
There are just over 80 Jewish chaplains in the US Armed Forces, with less than half of those on Active Duty. Chances are fairly slim that you’ll have a Jewish chaplain where you are stationed next. And that’s where Uncle Sam needs YOU: you can become the Distinctive Religious Group Leader, or Jewish Lay Leader. You would work hand in hand with the chaplains to ensure that there is a Jewish program on your installation. We, at Aleph, certify Jewish Lay Leaders. In order to become a DRGL, you need to attain permission from your commander as well as from the senior installation chaplain. When you have done so, reach out to us and we will assist you however we can.
Lay Leaders are particularly valuable in deployed situations, but if we want to make sure our Jewish service members have their religious needs provided wherever they are, we cannot underestimate the value of having a seat at every installation chapel’s proverbial table.
5. It might be difficult, but it is possible to serve G-d as an observant Jew in the US Military.
The idea of “service” is to put ourselves secondary for something greater than ourselves. Our military lives and our Jewish lives are both about something greater, and both elements of service need to give and take. While we certainly recognize the innate constraints of military service to a complete and proper Jewish life, we should never allow the thought that it is impossible. It’s a matter of making it a priority, even in difficult circumstances.
As a child, I had the pleasure of regularly saying good morning and Shabbat Shalom to an elderly man, the grandfather of a friend of mine, who would walk slowly up the hill to his synagogue. It was only after he passed away that I found out that he had been on a landing craft in the early morning of June 7, 1944. Just before hitting the beach of Normandy with the waves of hundreds of thousands of US and Allied troops, Mr. Butler ducked behind some crates in the LST, donned his Tallit and Tefillin, and prayed the morning services. That image moves me every time I think of it.
But perhaps nothing expresses this more than the remarkable gravestone of Marine SSgt Bernard Haller:
Semper Fidelis, sir; and Am Yisrael Chai!
What more is there to say? May we all serve both G-d and country as they did.