By a Defiantly Jewish, Unapologetically American Soldier
(Note: The following rant represents the opinions of one active duty service member and supporter of Aleph, and the statements herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the Aleph Institute, or anyone else.)
Of the many misconceptions of secular society commonly found among the Torah observant, one that has always bothered me is “you cannot be an Orthodox Jew and serve in the US Armed Forces.” Perhaps there are more pressing issues out there, but this is one that I have a personal stake in, as do many readers of the Jewish American Warrior. On behalf of us few proud, observant Jewish members of the service, I would like to set the record straight. I am probably the least qualified of my brothers to speak on behalf of Orthodox Jewish service members, but I put on tallit and tefillin every morning, I do my best to keep kosher under circumstances that only veterans can really understand, and I keep Shabbat to the extent that operational necessity allows. And when someone denigrates the spiritual integrity of Jewish Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coasties, or even (sigh) Guardians, I feel honor-bound to speak out, and so should you.
“Oh, you’re in the Army. So like, the IDF?”
This is something visibly Jewish soldiers hear a lot, or at least I have. And I’m not sure whether it’s more jarring when it comes out of the mouth of a Jewish civilian or a gentile one. Now, I consider myself a Zionist. Supporting the existence of the Jewish state and its right to self-defense in no way represents a conflict of loyalty, despite what certain members of Congress might say. Israel is a key strategic ally, the only vibrant democracy in the Middle East, and provides a safe haven for Jews from around the world. For those of us who believe in G-d’s words to Abraham, America’s willingness to stand by Israel is a vital source of divine blessing for the Land of the Free. Historically speaking, when countries turn against their Jewish populations, it is always followed by a loss of stature and influence, if not total regime collapse. So the way I see it, anyone who wants a strong, prosperous, and free America would want this nation to remain a friend of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
It is a source of pride for many Jews, and unfortunately a matter of necessity, that Israel maintain a robust military. I have the utmost respect for my Israeli peers, and understand why some of my fellow US citizens volunteer to serve a tour in the Israel Defense Forces. But at the end of the day, I am an American. Jews have been part of the fabric of this country since its very inception. I took the same oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States as everyone else who is serving or has served, and according to halacha (Jewish law), my word is sacrosanct and inviolable. So if you hear someone make the assumption that the only way a Jew can serve (or the only way we’d ever choose to) is on behalf of the State of Israel, please call them on it. This misconception reinforces anti-semitic stereotypes, and it’s simply not true.
Is this a job for a nice Jewish boy (or girl)?
As anyone who has been through it can tell you, being actively Jewish in the military presents unique challenges beyond those employed in secular society. I’ve often said that when I enlisted (and I was nearing the maximum age at the time), I was at a place in my life where military service solved more problems than it created. But it also creates unique opportunities for a kiddush Hashem (sanctifying G-d’s name)! Service members often have experiences that just don’t exist in the civilian world. Making it through those experiences and coming out on the other side with one’s dignity and honor intact, while consciously representing the Torah way of life, can change the way others think about us, and the way we think about ourselves.
When I go somewhere in uniform (and that uniform includes a matching yarmulka), it’s not uncommon to hear “you’re the first Jew I’ve ever met.” It’s probably not true, but they don’t know that, because only a small percentage of American Jewry wears that information on their sleeve (or their head). When we participate in the camaraderie and brotherhood of military service while being careful to also hold ourselves to G-d’s standards, people notice in a good way. Sure, I can’t join my battle buddies at their favorite restaurant, but I often hear, “I wish I had your level of dedication.” And I’ve created a few non-Jewish fans of cholent (a popular Shabbat stew) by participating in unit potlucks, even if I was partially motivated by the desire to have something there that I could eat.
There are those who would say the profession of arms is inherently non-Jewish. While one could reasonably argue that normative Judaism eschews militancy, we have a long, proud, if often overlooked, warrior tradition. (And at least one clothing brand that celebrates that tradition at MaccabeeApparel.com, #ShamelessSelfPromotion.) Moreover, the US Armed Forces have always been a force for good that could not be achieved through peaceful means. I’m proud to bear the standard of those who once liberated Nazi death camps! There is a time to pray, and there is a time to take up arms. Shouldn’t Jews be a part of the latter? I’m all for placing our faith in the Creator. The fate of the world rests in His hands. But don’t mistake faith for passivity. Our tradition encourages us to take action when given the opportunity make a positive difference. We pray for the sick, but we also know that prayer is a supplement to, not a substitute for medical treatment. As a result, Judaism holds physicians in high regard, and to this day it remains a popular career choice. And while medicine certainly pays better, I would suggest that we benefit from the existence of Jewish soldiers just as much as we do from Jewish doctors. Let us fight tyranny and injustice with the same enthusiasm we bring to fighting disease!
Many Jews maintain an “Old World” attitude toward military service. In the old country, serving in the military was something that was forced on us. We were abused, spat upon, and forced to give decades of our lives if not our actual lives, to the Czar or whatever despot ruled in that place and time. Based on that historical memory and not bothering to learn how things are done today, the notion of voluntary military service strikes some of us as a strange, if not outright ludicrous, idea. But there are many American Jews today lacking job skills and/or structure in their lives who would probably benefit from a tour of duty. I’ve often joked that if the Army assigned me to be a recruiter, I would ask to go to New York or LA. I’d link up with the local Mizrachi yeshivot and recruit a brigade’s worth of linguists—people already fluent in high-priority languages who understand how fortunate they are to be American, and have no love for the regimes which they or their parents left behind. I know people close to me who have completely turned their own lives around with a little help from the US military. It’s not a cure-all, but it is an option, and I only wish that more of the Torah-observant community would keep an open mind about it.
But what do you think? Am I on to something here, or am I just talking to myself? Share your thoughts by writing in to the Jewish American Warrior, or you can reach me personally at [email protected].
Originally published in the Chanukah 2021 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.