The Aleph Institute teamed up with USAF Auxiliary Chaplain, Capt Dovid Grossman to interview Electrician’s Mate Nuclear Third Class Edmund “Daniel” Di Liscia, who is currently serving aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Thank you for joining us. When did you begin your service?
Daniel Di Liscia (DDL): I enlisted at the end of 2016 but my actual enlistment date was in early 2018. In the nuclear field I’m required to have a security clearance of secret or top secret, which took a while to get, about 20 months.
What is your background? Where did you grow up?
DDL: I was born in 1994 and grew up in Echo Park in Los Angeles, California. My family is Sephardi. My Nonno (grandfather) came from Italy and lost his entire extended family in the Holocaust. My grandmother, Nonna, is from Puerto Rico. Her family had fled there from Spain in the late 1800s to escape persecution, but a person had to be white and Christian to have full rights or land ownership there. As a child, my Nonna lost an eye when people found out she was Jewish and threw rocks at her and her family. This didn’t stop her in life. She went on to get eight Master’s degrees and two PhDs. My grandfather came to America with no education, no English, and no money but within ten years had earned two PhDs.
My grandparents led a more practicing Jewish life in the US, but they were always terrified of people finding out they were Jewish. As a child, my mother was constantly told to hide her Judaism. I went my whole childhood not knowing I was Jewish. I only knew that my grandfather was Jewish because he would talk about the Holocaust. My father is Christian, so I grew up going to church and had a very typical American upbringing.
I attended a private, Christian, college-prep school and pursued a degree in computer science at Oregon State University. I didn’t fit well with the program and switched my major to business and got top grades. But apparently it wasn’t enough for a scholarship. I was running out of money and didn’t want to go into debt. I decided to enlist, as my father and grandfather had served in the military.
How did you discover your Jewish roots?
DDL: Right before starting the enlistment process, I worked at Target in Pasadena, Los Angeles. When I noticed the Chanukah items were out, I made a mental note in case I saw a Jewish person. One day I saw a Jewish family, a woman with three little boys. I approached them and said, “Can I help you find anything? We have a Chanukah section over there.” And they were like, “How do you know it’s Chanukah?” I said, “I know the basics. My grandfather was Jewish.” One thing led to another, and this woman’s husband, who turned out to be a local Chabad rabbi, helped me get my first pair of tefillin and tzitzit. We started learning together and became very close, and eventually I became observant.
How did this coincide with your enlistment in the Navy?
DDL: While this was going on I was still in the enlistment process. I was trying to figure out what it meant to be Jewish and realized that although I had been raised in a Christian home, I couldn’t be Christian and Jewish. So despite my father’s entire extended family being Christian, I decided to live as an Orthodox Jew. I became observant, keeping kosher and Shabbat.
You mentioned the military as a way to cover expenses, and in the meantime you became kosher- and Sabbath-observant. Did anything make you second guess your decision?
DDL: My security clearance took such a long time that my recruiter said I wouldn’t be in violation of the contract if I dropped it. This was a turning point: I could remain at Target or I could join the Navy. I saw my Jewish practice as one way of improving myself and refining my character, but I saw the military as another way to do that, with a steady income and challenging responsibilities. I’m grateful for boot camp and the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, or “the Pipeline” as we nukes call it. Life is about growth, and I didn’t want to remain stagnant.
So you had an opportunity to bow out with no penalties. What went through your mind?
DDL: I had made a promise to join. When I was younger I used to lie a lot, but after meeting the rabbis and becoming more observant I worked very hard to stop lying and start keeping my word and following through. Judaism, and more importantly G-d calls on us to live our lives with truth, and that’s what I intend on doing.
That’s amazing. Once you got started, were there any specific mentors that enhanced your experience?
DDL: There was this one Petty Officer in boot camp. He had massive burn scars across his face and on his arms. We learned that there was a fire, and he had been ordered to close off a section of his ship where sailors were trapped, or the whole ship would burn. As he was closing it he got horribly burned. Throughout boot camp he told us, “You have the back of the guy next to you. You are his shipmate. You put the ship first, then the shipmate, then yourself.” And while all this is very standard Navy talk, it really hit home when he talked. We knew he cared about us and our integrity, that we would do what we’re supposed to do, not because it benefits us but because it’s what the mission requires.
At the Navy propulsion training in Charleston, the schoolhouse is named after Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the Nuclear Navy. Rickover was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who expounded ideas of integrity, honesty, and hard work. Going there and learning his story, how he was not willing to budge when it came to the safety of his reactors and operators, was very inspiring. This gave me confidence to pursue the program.
Let’s talk about crossing the threshold between civilian life and military life. Did you ever get hit with a feeling that this is a new world, different from anything you ever experienced?
DDL: My father had been in the military before I was born and I grew up hearing his stories, so I always had a strong military connection. The transition from civilian to military was very quick, and while the effects are long-lasting, it was like ripping off a bandaid—it stings but the pain is over fast. But it didn’t really hit me until after training. In training we were treated like we didn’t know anything, which we didn’t. But we were treated with a level of respect and held accountable, which was new.
My focus changed once I got to the USS Theodore Roosevelt where it’s not just nukes. Before, it was just us nukes and our officers, we learned the same things and told the same jokes. Now we were suddenly in a place with a different job than everyone else and we stood out. Being in the military means you’re part of a community with many conflicting subgroups and cliques.
It was an interesting place with a new pace, and very refreshing. I had some issues because some nukes tend to think they’re the smartest person in the room (because that’s what they used to be until they all found themselves in the same place together). I wasn’t very good at that type of competition so I kind of backed out, like, “Smart, me? Nah, I’m just Jewish!”
Were you ever on the receiving end of anti-semitic behavior?
DDL: Unfortunately there was a lot of anti-semitism, or Jew-hatred, expressed by other military members. I was the first Jew most of them had ever met.
At Nuclear Field “A” School, on the first morning of Pesach one sailor came in and announced that “today is the day that the Christian savior was killed by the Jews.” I sat there thinking, I’m the only Jew you know, why are you saying this? So I spoke up, “You mean the Romans?” He said, “No, the Jews and the Romans, but mostly the Jews.” I thought to myself, We’re in the military, we’re coworkers! My life’s in his hands and his life is in my hands, and he’s saying this type of stuff? He didn’t think he’d said anything wrong. I told him, “What you said could get you sent to Mast or even kicked out of the military.” We went to see the chaplain (he was Christian), and he told the sailor off for saying both theologicaly and morally incorrect information. In power school I managed to talk this guy down to a level where he didn’t sound like such a bad person. I could even see us being friends under different circumstances.
However, a worse incident happened at power school during the second phase of training. In January 2019 after the Chanukah attacks in New York, I was feeling really down. I left my room one morning to find a swastika made of glue and matchsticks in front of my door. I freaked out internally while appearing calm. I made sure people around me saw it and took a picture. Then I reported it. Legal started an investigation, which they never concluded. Given the circumstances it’s understandable—we were transferred so all the possible suspects had left the base. I took it in stride and thank G-d there were no incidents at prototype, the third training.
Can you tell us about what happened with your beard?
DDL: Starting in boot camp, there was an unfortunate situation regarding my beard. As my beard was three inches long at that time, I asked an Orthodox Jewish chaplain for guidance and he advised me to request to see the boot camp chaplain about my beard when I arrived. When I got there and told my RTC that I needed to talk to a chaplain and why, he told me, “If you request to talk to a chaplain, we’ll kick you out right now, and you will never become a sailor.” I got scared and thought, I’ve sacrificed a lot for this, so I shaved; something I deeply regret. When I got out of boot camp, I put in a request for a religious accommodation to no longer shave. As the military goes, this takes a while. About two months later the request was approved under BUPERSINST 1730.11, a new and revolutionary framework for religious accommodation. It’s amazing because it allows the CO to approve certain things and creates a standard template for real religious accommodation.
I got to the ship with only one active accommodation, my beard. I went to the chaplain, who was Catholic, and told him I wanted to get a religious accommodation for kosher food, for the Sabbath, and a new accommodation for my beard, just to be safe. I wanted to send another one to the new CNO to make sure that my bases were covered and that there was not going to be any issue.
This religious accommodation is a new development, so all the chiefs and the master chiefs reacted with suspicion, saying things like: “What is this? I’ve never seen it before, how does the no-shave chit not expire? Who are you? Did you lie to us?!” It was an interesting first few weeks. I ended up only sending the beard request, because the chaplain thought we could take care of the other two things “in house,” at a local level. He was wrong.
Life aboard ship is obviously more demanding than shore-based duty. Were you eventually able to get your religious needs accommodated?
DDL: It wasn’t easy. When a nuke comes to a new ship, they join reactor training (RT). This is when you study to start qualifying for a basic nuclear reactor qualification. The normal track is 14 weeks, but because of Covid and other factors, my fellow sailors and I went for about five months of qualifications. I had some trouble taking tests on deployment, because I was malnourished.
We had ordered 180 kosher MREs for the deployment. They arrived a few days after we left and stayed in a warehouse until we got back. Unfortunately military supply is infamous for neglecting items that need to be moved. I checked with the CS and made friends in the kitchen who let me look at food product labels. I managed to keep kosher on the ship by surviving off a single repeated meal: beans, lettuce with kosher ranch, tuna, and lots of hot sauce. This was my only meal for over four months, and continued being a regular part of my diet until the end of deployment!
Then I began to experience the second issue—keeping Shabbat. In RT we have one watch station. We guard the phone and confidential material. I talked to my master chief and senior chief who said, “Yep, we can make sure that you never work on Shabbat. But you will have to deal with this in the future. You should prepare for that.” I started writing up a special request.
I told the Reactor Department commanders, “If it’s an absolute emergency, due to the possible threat to life I can stand watch, but only if I’m the only one who can do it.” They took this to mean, “We can put him there if someone else wants to sleep.” They didn’t understand. Some of them might have met a Jewish person before but they had never dealt with an Orthodox Jew in the military. To my knowledge, I’m one of very few enlisted Orthodox Jews in the Navy.
At this point I was also the Jewish lay leader for the ship and was leading services. Over the entire deployment I led about 60 religious services. Thanks to the donation of the Aleph Institute, I was able to get siddurs and other materials for the Jewish sailors. Working with now-Commander Orres, a Lutheran Christian chaplain, we presented the Shabbat accommodation to my command. It went all the way up through the Branch Officer to the CO. Everyone except the CO gave it a non-recommendation, the culture being that there is a very strong position of “you need to earn your leniencies.” I was even told by a certain personnel that my religious practice was one of the causes for why I was struggling at work and I needed to be more like her and give up my religious practices, and G-d would forgive me. This was very distressing to me because she was pretty much telling me that I shouldn’t be Jewish.
A short time after that, upon entering Reactor Electricians, I was ordered to shave my beard. My chief had read the instructions and thought my religious accommodation no longer applied. Then the Chief of Naval Personnel, acting as CNO-N1, denied my new request for a beard on the grounds that my beard would interfere with protective equipment (gas masks and firefighting air supply). In the request I put in that I already had this accommodation, but was sending it again as a formality. This beard had never interfered with my gas mask before, and there’s plenty of examples in and out of the Navy of people wearing gas masks with beards, most notably firefighters. As the CNO-N1 denied my request on the grounds of good order and discipline in gas mask wearing, he actually violated the BUPERSINST 1730.11A accommodation, which says every denial should be a specific cause, not a general cause.
That must have been really stressful! How did you handle the situation?
DDL: I got in touch with the Beckett Institute, which fights for religious rights for military members in court. I told them I’d been ordered to shave, and already had an appeal going up to the Chief of Naval Operations, which was long overdue and still on his desk. Beckett said, “We can do two things: 1) You can shave and not make a fuss, and we’ll eventually be able to make sure that you won’t have to shave in the future. This is the easiest option, you won’t be targeted, and there will be no possibility of reprisal because you followed their instruction. 2) We can do an emergency lawsuit and sue the Navy in federal court to stop them from making you shave.
At this point it was 16 hours until I was required to shave. I told them to go ahead with the lawsuit. If it doesn’t go through, it doesn’t go through. I came up with some alternative solutions.
At 0400, the Reactor Electrical Assistant came to my rack to inform me that my federal lawsuit had just gone to court, and the Navy now has a restraining order against its ability to order me to shave or trim my beard. A lot of people were upset. Some fellow Nukes were like, “Look at this guy who doesn’t need to shave now! Do you think you’re special?” Others said, “It would have been easier to just shave, why did you have to sue the Navy?” They didn’t understand. But I stuck with it because this is my practice, my integrity, my relationship with Hashem. I had violated it for the Navy once before, and I was determined never to do that again.
The Captain, after seeing that I was brave enough to sue the Navy itself despite tremendous opportunity for reprisal, negative interactions, and even Captain’s Mast or court martial, said, “This sailor’s really dedicated to his faith.” When my request for Shabbat came to him, he looked at the list of people who denied it and said, “Why is this being denied? Why can’t this be done? Make it happen.”
A bunch of people in my department and division interviewed me. Then I had a meeting with the Captain where he gave a partial approval, which said I wouldn’t stand watch on Shabbat but would work on other days to make up the difference. This led to more sleepless nights, but it was worth it. After that, my Reactor Officer either had a change of heart or started to understand my commitment to Judaism. He extended that authority and approved me for Shabbat when we’re on shore. I still had to be there, but I don’t have to do work, only be present for emergencies. To avoid uncomfortable situations I try not to rely on my accomodation by trading my duty days with others so that I’m doing the same amount of watch as everyone else. Some people have the wrong idea and tell me, “You shouldn’t have joined the Navy if you wanted to work less than everyone else.” That is not the case at all!
Eventually people got used to it, and some sailors in and out of my department who were not Jewish joined our services out of curiosity. I made a good number of friends and spread the message of, “Hey we’re Jews, we exist, this is what Shabbat is.” And that went very well.
Going back to before deployment I had talked to the ranking Jewish chaplain in the Navy, Chaplin CDR Aaron Kleinman, about challah, because there was no kosher bread on the ship. We went with the idea of double wrapping the dough in tin foil, using kosher ingredients, and ensuring there’s nothing else in the oven. I wrote a detailed instruction on how to make kosher challah bread. I gave it to the First Class Petty Officer for the ship’s religious department. He reviewed it and asked the culinary specialists and Supply to make it this way for Jewish services. Although they did a great job, there’s always one particular step they skip: The recipe calls for splitting the dough into six parts in order to make smaller loaves. They did not make smaller loaves; they always made one giant two-and-a-half foot loaf. That meant a lot of leftover challah. I couldn’t eat it all myself, so I’d give most of it away. Every Friday night and Saturday morning, I would carry this huge thing of bread across the ship. I became “the Jew with the giant bread!”
What was the most rewarding Jewish experience during your deployment so far?
DDL: Pesach was a miracle. There was no Pesach food, not even matzah. I talked to Supply and the chaplains, and we got permission from the Warrant Officer in charge of the galleys and food supply to go to the Commanding Officer’s personal galley and work with them to make kosher pots and pans. We made boiled eggs, fried potatoes, and salmon. We didn’t have matzah, but we had plenty of other food. We even had charoset made with nuts, apples, and dragon fruit. It was a tasty spread. And then a miracle happened.
We were supposed to get supplies earlier in the week, but the delivery was pushed off until the day before Pesach. I thought, We expected Pesach supplies months ago, we were not informed about them coming, they’re not going to come today. When I went to put the food in the fridge, I found a giant shipment of matzah. Kosher Troops had sent it without being asked! I nearly had a heart attack from joy. I put a couple boxes away for Pesach and gave every Jewish service member a box of matzah, enough for all of Pesach!
During Shabbat as I was preparing to lead the seder, which I’d never done before, the RP3 brought me another box. Inside was a seder leader kit and 10 seder kits for Pesach. I was like, “Wow, I guess we didn’t need to cook all that food!” At the first seder we had seven people, including myself. It was the biggest Jewish attendance for a service aside from a Chanukah event. We even each had four glasses of wine. I overestimated what 3.5 ounces of wine was, so we all got a little tipsy. I managed to turn the leftover seder kits that didn’t get used into Passover MREs for the Jewish sailors.
After that we kept getting more Pesach supplies. Then we got supplies for Purim, albeit several months late. We had so much food that even after giving over half of it away, things started falling out of our designated cabinet. We had a storage box that also became full. I gave a lot of matzah to the RPs because they really helped me out. Is that a gift? Some people would say no… But they liked it enough, so we all won.
Shavuot was a difficult case. When I put in for leave, it went up to the Reactor Officer who said no. Then I went up to the CO who approved it about six hours before the holiday started. I also had a very interesting halachic issue. The Talmud talks about if you get lost and your counting of the Omer is different from someone else’s counting when you come to their village. What do you do? Do you celebrate Shavuot on a different day? We happened to cross the international date line between Pesach and Shavuot. While I was not lost in the desert, I was counting the Omer differently than everyone else in the world. This meant we celebrated Shavuot a day early.
The day we crossed the international date line was also Shabbat, so that made things complicated as well, but with the guidance of expert rabbis, we figured it out.
It sounds like you had quite the adventure! Your dedication is really inspiring. So far, how would you characterize your service?
DDL: I dedicated my service to every American, and to my fellow Jews as well. As an ally of Israel, a supporter and defender of freedom, I seek to inspire Jewish practice for my fellow Jewish sailors, and to let others know that Jews exist. We’re your neighbors, friends, and fellow service members. We fight to defend you just like every other soldier and sailor.
What a beautiful perspective. Thank you for meeting with us and sharing your incredible journey.
DDL: Of course, my pleasure.
Originally posted in the Chanukah 2021 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.