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By: Corporal Aviv Peleg, USMC

My first Purim in the military was in Marine Corps recruit training, the day I finished the Crucible in March 2022 and got my Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. Even though it was Purim, I see my Crucible experience as my own Exodus from Egypt. If my forefathers could do 40 years in the desert, what’s 54 hours in California? That’s what stuck with me—to see yourself as if you were really there, and this is how I imagined it. Going straight into Purim immediately afterward was counter to the normal flow of things, but then again, so is most of recruit training. Having the EGA ceremony as the culminating event of the Crucible was an awesome and an incredibly touching event.

Physically, the Crucible sucks. Your feet hurt, your knees hurt, your back hurts. You’ve been hiking all day for multiple days, you’re chafing and have blisters everywhere. You’re covered in mud and coarse sand, because you’re doing a lot of crawling through puddles and that sort of thing. So you just feel awful mentally. Even when you’re near the end they do their best to get you to forget that and make everything feel as difficult as possible. So you know you’re almost finished with recruit training and so close to being able to call yourself a Marine, yet a lot of people have a tough time with keeping their head up and moving forward.

During recruit training, I found that Judaism and spirituality was something I could use to keep me going. Growing up in Plano, Texas, my level of religiousness was somewhat decided by my family’s choices to a degree, so I kind of fell into it. But recruit training is a much tougher environment; you have to fight for every individual thing you want outside of the group. In order to attend Jewish services or put on tefillin was an ordeal. You have to go to your senior drill instructor and request it. Then you wait a week (or more) before they come back and say it’s allowed.

So in that bare environment, I found that I grew in my Judaism. For the first time, I really had to work for it; it wasn’t just “there.” It was amazing to feel that I had pushed to hold onto my Judaism, and the culmination of that accomplishment (or the crucible, if you will) was being able to celebrate Purim. When I was up north in Camp Pendleton, going through a month of field training, I didn’t have a regular Jewish chaplain like I did in San Diego. The closest Jewish rabbi, Levi Kazarnovsky, was about an hour drive away from the base. He would come on Sundays as requested, but wasn’t able to come for Purim. Not wanting to leave us all alone for Purim, he kindly arranged for another rabbi to come read megillah for myself and the other Jewish soldier. It turned out to be Chaplain Levi Ceitlin. At first I felt awkward asking for a rabbi, knowing he would need to drive at least an hour each way just for one or two people. But Chaplain Ceitlin was happy to do it. You can imagine my relief when my request for a rabbi on Purim was approved.

Everyone kind of breathed a sigh of relief when the Crucible ended. Everyone relaxed afterwards, except for me. I had one more thing to look forward to: celebrate a Jewish holiday. During training I had recited some prayers and put on tefillin about once a week, but to be able to celebrate the holiday was a special occasion that I really looked forward to. So on the way down from the Reaper which is the mountain where we received our Eagle, Globe, and Anchor (it’s quite a hike—a lot fall out or end up injured afterward), I wasn’t done yet. I still had that next step, which was Purim.

Somehow, I managed to keep all four mitzvahs of Purim—listening to the Megillah, distributing food packages, eating a festive meal and giving charity. This was no easy feat considering all the intense effort that went into successfully completing the Crucible. But, it was the second part of what I had deemed my mission. As far as the traditional festive Purim meal, we had the Warrior’s breakfast: my beef and hash browns felt pretty close to a proper festive meal. After that, I participated in a megillah reading with another Jewish Marine in my training company. Before the holiday, we had requested a megillah reading and fortunately for us, Chaplain Ceitlin was able to provide that. He graciously arrived that morning at the Range chapel and even brought us mishloach manot, the gifts of food that you’re supposed to give to at least one other person. So that took care of the second and third mitzvahs of Purim.

For the last remaining mitzvah, matanot la’evyonim—charity for those in need, I had some cash on me, which you’re supposed to bring to recruit training in case of emergency. Thanks to that, I had a few dollars on me to give tzedakah. There’s no drinking allowed, obviously, so I couldn’t fulfill the custom of indulging “ad d’loh yadah,” until you don’t know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai. It turned out to be a topsy-turvy custom for a topsy-turvy day (or should I say tipsy-turvy day). However, the first day that I could actually call myself a Marine, I saw that as my Purim costume. This was when I dressed as a Marine for the first time and was no longer considered a recruit.

Aside from that Purim, Rabbi Kazarnovsky’s visits gave me a lot of strength. Whenever he arrived, he would bring a weekly newsletter that really helped me a lot. It was pretty much the only reading material that I had outside of Marine Corps reading material. At night, I’d go into the head to sit and read the newsletter. It really helped raise my connection to Judaism because it was my only source of anything outside of recruit training.

The story of Purim ends with the Jews of Persia fighting their enemies to remain alive and retain their identity as Jews in a hostile environment. My military service began with fighting to retain my Jewish identity in the hostile environment that is recruit training. While the right to freely practice your religion is a federally protected right for service members, they don’t make it easy. Through my struggle, however, I found that the need to fight for everything brought me closer to Judaism and strengthened my spiritualism. Unlike Esther, Mordechai, and the Jews of Shushan who relied on hidden miracles to succeed, mine were as plain as can be. Without the king’s help the Jews of Shushan would have had salvation come from another source, but without the help of dedicated civilian rabbis and chaplains, who knows where I and the Jews of San Diego would find theirs?

Originally published in the Chanukah/Purim 2024 Issue of The Jewish American Wariror.