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By CSM Sam Yudin, CA ARNG

Let’s talk about Purpose, Character, Pride, and Deliberate Action. I want to illustrate these four keys through discussing how being raised Jewish with a sense of purpose and pride prepared me to be successful in the Army, and how Jewish pride in service, as well as connection to each other and our past, are important.

We’ll start with the past; specifically, an all but unknown military figure from my personal past: my great-great-uncle, who wrote am family memoir that has had a deep impact on me. At the end of 1892, my great-great grandfather, Pesach Isar Geilczynski, was the head of a Yeshiva in Lomza, Poland. One of his sons, Moyshe, was conscripted into the Czar’s Army. My great-great grandfather took Moyshe to go see a great rabbi for a blessing before he shipped off to service in the far off Novogorodsky district of Russia. When the rabbi gave Moyshe his blessing he said cryptically, “Maybe they need Jews there.” In his memoir, Moyshe writes that this comment stayed in his mind long after and was not to be taken lightly.

I believe this comment by the rabbi in Lomza is a beautifully Jewish way to explain our service as Jews. Why did you join the Army? Navy? Marines? Air Force? Coast Guard? Law Enforcement? Maybe they need Jews there!

Why do you have to go to Korea? Germany? Kosovo? Kuwait? Iraq? Afghanistan? Maybe they need Jews there!

Why did the Rebbe send emissaries to almost every country from A to Z? Maybe they need Jews there!

The rabbi was right. They certainly needed Moyshe there, as we are needed where we are sent. And if they need Jews there, they also need a Jewish Chaplain or Lay Leader to advocate for Jewish servicemembers.

During a Passover Seder I led in Kosovo in 2016, I described Passover as the quintessential Jewish Holiday for inquisitiveness and love for knowledge and understanding. The Jewish proclivity to inquisitiveness is only trumped by needing to recite pages of prayers; otherwise there would be way more than four questions! But in the military, inquisitiveness and religious accommodation is sometimes seen as a challenge to authority. Having a Jewish chaplain to ask the questions and educate the command saves the service member from alienating leaders, and that’s crucial.

Reading Moyshe’s memoir, it appears he acted as a Jewish Chaplain or lay leader during his service. As an advocate for Jewish religious observance and as a stubborn guardian of their dignity, he asked the questions and did the things that needed to be done to advocate for the Jewish troops; things that we all have done and still do. Moyshe relates that he was always the fastest on the obstacle course and best during maneuvers, and this gave him a level of respect. I have felt this throughout my career as well. Once you have received the confidence in your leaders, you will have the latitude to do many things. We are in the people, teamwork, and relationship business. We must create that trust in order to be effective. Once we gain trust, all things are possible regardless of our race, gender, religion, or creed. We must put in the work and not expect anything without giving something.

Moyshe talks about Kashrut. He asks, “Was it permissible to eat the food that we were given or not? No one seemed to pay any attention to that. I did not start to eat treyf right away, but then we joined the brigade. There I understood that it was not going to be such a simple matter.” Here we see that being an exemplary soldier was not always enough. Moyshe said he used various pretexts to maintain his Kosher diet, and for that he needed a little ingenuity, and luck as well:

“When it was time to eat, , there were 7 or 8 of us to a bowl. I took the portion of meat that was doled out, just like everyone else, but I had to work very skillfully, as I brought an empty spoon to my mouth with a piece of bread… The more the others had, the better. If someone had enough, he didn’t look around to see who didn’t have. By the time they might have thought of something, I was already in the tea room with kosher salami from Warsaw, goose fat, bread, and tea sweetened with sugar.”

Enter the Sergeant Major, which, given my position, interested me even more. In fact, the Sergeant Major would become an important part of this story; and truth be told, the Sergeant Major or your service equivalent should be an important part of your story. If you haven’t already done so, he or she is already hearing or telling stories about you. You might want to make sure you are helping him or her write them!

Back to Moyshe, he writes, “One time the Sergeant Major came into company quarters at meal time and caught me eating my food. He said: ‘You aren’t eating the Army’s food, Goldinsky?’ My answer was: ‘Absolutely not, Sergeant Major, sir!’”

He immediately established a clear and true relationship, and that would have an important impact for Moyshe and his fellow Jewish soldiers. “Passover was drawing near. It was the law that Jewish Soldiers be given furlough for holidays, the first and the second days but not the intermediary days.” Just a comment – I found this law more progressive than our current policy here in the U.S. 128 years later! In Czarist Russia, the holiday was given off, and in free America, we must request it off! In any case, Moyshe continues with his first act of Jewish advocacy for the group. “We collected 3 rubles from the Jewish Soldiers, and I brought the Sergeant-Major a gift from the Jews in honor of Passover. It was worth it: he let us have the intermediary days off as well! During one of the intermediary days, when the whole company was to go on maneuvers, everyone was lined up in front of their barracks waiting for the lieutenant to come. We were also lined up. Then the Sergeant Major went over to the sergeant and told him that the Jews are on holiday.”

Moyshe does not reveal what the gift was to the Sergeant Major so I apologize that I cannot relate to you what a bribe to the Sergeant Major should be of course, before considering 128 years of inflation and conversion from rubles.

Moyshe also mentions a bit of anti-semitism perhaps and how he handled advocating for all the Jews with courage, leveraging his credibility, and by what has served me well in my career – a whole lot of Chutzpah. “One day, we were getting ready to meet Czar Alexander the Third and the Crown Prince and the whole routine by parading before them. Suddenly, the Sergeant Major excluded the Jews from this event, because, it appears, he didn’t want them to have this pleasure. The Jews were sent to their barracks or to the kitchen. This annoyed me very much. When the Sergeant-Major came into the barracks, I screwed up my courage and asked him why he had placed the weaker soldiers in the parade and had excluded us. I asked him if he would exclude me from the next day’s maneuvers also.” And of course, Moyshe was allowed to partake in the parade. Moyshe, with chutzpah, when given the opportunity to – as Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof would say, stay far away from the Czar, decided he wanted to parade in front of him.

I relate these incredible stories of Moyshe Geilczynski because as you can see they are very relevant to the topics at hand. A set of Jewish values guide, frame, and inform my thinking and behavior as a leader. You must be an ethical leader. Immanuel Kant in Lectures on Ethics says that acting from intrinsic goodness is ethical. He goes on to say that in ethics, we deal with what we ought to do; not desire to do.

I relate this to the Chabad movement’s push to enthusiastically do mitzvot. This relates to his categorical imperative, which says that you ought to do what is right, regardless of the outcome. It is telling that in describing ethics Kant focuses on the reason for the action and practically ignores the outcome. This view is also what I distilled from attending a Chabad school. Doing the good act in itself without thought to a reward is, as is relayed in Ethics of Our Fathers, important. This means even if it will mean negative consequences or discomfort. This is a constant situation a leader is in, and I argue a leader must have the moral clarity and personal courage to make the hard right over the easy wrong every time.

What informs the way you act? How did you develop your character? I am assuming that for all of you it was developed, like me, within the Jewish faith. Purpose, character, and ethics are central to the Jewish way of life. Codes and creeds are almost compulsory but we live them for the intrinsic goodness of the action. Codes of conduct governed the criteria for a member of the Sanhedrin and governs the conduct of a service member. The purpose, character, and ethics developed in my Jewish faith translate directly to military service.

There are countless clear examples of lessons in Judaism that directly translate to military success. Payot, Tzitzit, and a Kippah are described as a uniform in the Chabad children’s club, Tzivos Hashem (which I attended as a child), teaching the child to always act in a manner with (military) bearing, not to bring discredit to yourself or G-d, a Chillul Hashem, but instead be a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d. I am always more aware of my actions or perceived actions while in uniform or wearing a kippah.

You can take each Army value or creed such as the NCO Creed and correlate it to many Jewish ethical teachings. There are endless examples of Jewish leadership lessons good and bad in the Torah: Moses leads the Israelites into the wilderness where he hits a rock instead of speaking to it, Jonah runs away from his responsibility, Joseph earns the Pharaoh’s trust through sound advice and is rewarded. There are the Maccabees, good and bad kings, and the list goes on.

Jewish leadership is from the ethics of our fathers (both literally and figuratively), having a purpose to act out of intrinsic goodness by being the mensch among men and the light to lead others by example. This speaks to character, purpose and ethics. I have always had a sense of pride and purpose instilled in me from my Jewish upbringing. As Viktor Frankl puts it in Man’s Search for Meaning, we do not ask what the purpose of life is but life asks us what our purpose in life is. Life throws at us what it will and how we react determines our ethics, character and our purpose. I strive to prepare myself mentally, spiritually, and physically to handle what life asks of me. This strong sense of purpose has allowed me to be an agile and adaptable leader. The leadership landscape is not stable. The surface is ever changing and we must develop and learn skills to remain adaptable problem solvers equipped to handle what comes at us with no ethical lapses or leadership failures. If we do, when life asks us what our purpose in life is we will have a clear, strong, and unwavering answer.

As you see, “Tradition” is not just a song in Fiddler on the Roof, but allows us to keep our balance as leaders. Tradition is a connection to a long line of proud history and vested interest in the positive outcome for the community. Tradition is what weaves us together in Judaism, for us to keep our “balance” for so many years as Tevye would tell you, and it is just as important in the military weaving warriors together not only in the present but to our history.

And that leads us to Jewish pride in service and connection to each other and our past. In a society that is less connected to military service, I have seen a great chasm with the Jewish Community. Since joining the military, I have felt alienated from Jewish communities, whether it was the ones I grew up in or ones across the world where I served. I turned to bonds with fellow Jews in service, but could never figure out how to involve the wider Jewish community.

One of the strong connections I made was to CPL Tibor Rubin. I did not know of many Jewish American military heroes, because nobody told me about them. Then I heard of Tibor Rubin being awarded the Medal of Honor and found out that my family knew his. Rabbi Engel, my first grade teacher, made the introduction. I used to visit him in the VA weekly and spent hours kibitzing where I learned so much about everything without learning anything at all.

But there are so many other inspiring stories to be told. There is Lewis Morrison, the first Black-Jewish commissioned officer in both the Confederate (1861) and Union (1861-1865) armies. Richard Stern earned the Iron Cross for Germany in WWI and the Silver Star for the US in WWII, and melted his Iron Cross down to be made into bullets to fight the Nazis. The father of the Navy Nuclear program, Admiral Rickover; the father of the Seabees, Admiral Moreell; father of the Green Berets, Colonel Bank; and so many other stories that needed to be told to Jewish Service members and the Jewish Community. Connections to this history is the tradition we need to keep as Jews and service members.

In 2018, I was finally successful in having an event at the local JCC which showcased Jewish pride in service and strengthened the bond between Jewish veterans and the Jewish Community. Since joining the California National Guard, I noticed there was a display of Jewish American Medal of honor Recipients sitting unused in a classroom on base. I was shocked to see it originally in 2010 but even more shocked that it was sitting in the same room for years. It was created and donated by the Jewish War Veterans in 2004, displayed for a short time, and forgotten. In 2018, I became the post commander of the JWV Tibor Rubin Post #786 and reached out to the JCC and fought for 6
months with the bureaucracy on the base and in the state to get authorization to display the exhibit at the JCC. It was an amazing event and enjoyed by all. It made great strides in us veterans being invited back into the community as celebrated members. The display is now traveling around the state being displayed proudly and is prompting discussions on expanding the scope of the exhibit and to highlighting other ethnic groups. Through things like this, we stay connected to each other, the community, and our purpose.

In summation, remember the examples of my great grand uncle, Moyshe Geilczynski on how to be an advocate for Jewish religious observance and as a stubborn guardian of Jewish service members dignity. Involve your senior enlisted in your military story. Make sure to stay connected to each other and the Jewish community as a whole because our connection to history and tradition keeps us balanced. You, as I have been, are prepared for success in your service by our Jewish upbringing. The teachings and directives of the Lubavitcher Rebbe are congruent to success in military service.

So to be successful, just be yourself: be Jewish.

This article was originally published in Pesach 2020 issue of the Jewish-American Warrior. It is based on a speech CSM Yudin delivered at the 2019 Aleph Military Symposium.