FN Yaakov Cruz, USCG
My unconventional journey to Judaism could be described as a roller coaster at best. I grew up on the outskirts of a small town in western Massachusetts like most country boys: driving trucks and shooting guns. Hunting and fishing were family traditions, and a perfect Friday night consisted of a bonfire in a back pasture surrounded by all my friends. I was an avid ski racer, and played soccer and rugby. My mother is a small, kind-hearted Jewish woman who would give the shirt off her back for a stranger, and takes it very personally if you don’t eat the food she constantly offers you. My father is an old-school country boy who made it his mission to instill the concepts of hard work and never quitting in me. While his tactics at times were harsh, they definitely worked.
Though my town has all the characteristics of your typical blue collar, working-class community, it actually used to have a large religious Jewish community when General Electric was headquartered there. When GE left in the late 80s, so did the majority of the religious community. My mother grew up in an Orthodox family and her father worked as an engineer at GE. After he died in the late 70s, my mother decided to stay in town and make a life for herself. Though she eventually stopped practicing almost altogether, she still maintained her Jewish identity.
As a kid, I really didn’t identify with any religion. I was religious in the sense that I knew there was a G-d, but my mother was Jewish and my father was Catholic, and neither of them were religious. My parents didn’t force religion on me at all. The only thing I knew about it was that I got to celebrate both Hanukah and Christmas. For a while, that was a big plus, but as I got older I started to ask questions. I think the turning point was when my classmates started to get their first communions, and everybody was getting so excited and planning their celebrations. I, on the other hand, had no idea what was going on or if I was supposed to do something similar. I went home and asked my mom one day why I don’t get a first communion. She explained that I was Jewish and Judaism flowed through the mother. However, even though I was already Jewish by birth, my father was Catholic so if I really wanted to switch to Catholicism I could, but I would have to go through certain rituals and ceremonies. Being tasked with such a decision at 7 years old was tough, but I like to be different, so I decided to stick with Judaism.
During high school, I spent 4 years in a reform youth group, connecting with other reform Jews my age from all around the New England area. Although I cherish the memories and the friendships I made, the reform movement really only allowed me to get my feet wet in understanding Judaism. There was a certain depth of knowledge that I wasn’t receiving. Anyone who knows me will tell you that if I’m lacking knowledge in a subject that I’m interested in, I will not stop until I get all the answers.
Luckily, those answers came when I started attending college in Boston. During my first few weeks at college I didn’t do much in terms of Judaism. Then one Friday an upper-classman by the name of Alex Friedman told me about how some of the Jewish kids at the college were invited to a rabbi’s house for Shabbat dinner and that I should join. I was skeptical at first because who wants to waste a Friday night as a freshman in college eating dinner with a religious rabbi? Alex convinced me that I would not regret attending. Little did I know that convincing me to go to that Shabbat dinner would change my life forever.
That Shabbat dinner, at the home of Rabbi Chananel Weiner, was by far one of the best dinners I’ve ever had. I left that Shabbat dinner feeling inspired and wanting more. Over the next few years of college I would travel to Israel several times both by myself and with Rabbi Weiner. While in Israel, I studied the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict in depth, and also spent a good amount of time studying Judaism at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem.
I graduated college knowing much more about Judaism than when I came in, but I knew my journey wasn’t over. As I progressed in my learning, I realized that I wanted to begin integrating more serious Jewish concepts such as keeping Shabbos and Kosher. Though my desire was a good start, the real turning point in my journey was in October 2018, when I attended a Shabbaton in Lakewood towards the end of October.
Arriving in Lakewood was like arriving in little Jerusalem—the place was wicked Jewish. In fact, I didn’t see anyone who wasn’t Jewish! I entered one of the dozens of shuls to find a room packed with college students and young professionals like myself, all there to learn more about what it meant to be a religious Jew. During the Shabbat meal, all the guests went around introducing themselves and telling their background. When it came to my turn, I explained to the family that I planned on going to yeshiva in Israel for some time and then afterwards enlisting in the military. Akiva, my host, then asked me a question that would go on to have incredible effects, “Yaakov, do you have a pair of Tefilin?” To which my response was “No.” Akiva nodded his head silently and we continued our meal.
The rest of the Shabbaton was crazy fun—we learned, ate, sang, and danced. But Saturday night, I got a real surprise. We were at someone’s house, with more dancing and more food. As I was dancing, Akiva pulled me aside. He handed me a felt bag with some writing on it and said, “Yaakov, this is your pair of tefilin. I heard your story and I felt your passion. Wrap Tefillin every day, stay strong on your journey, and these will keep you safe when you are serving our country wherever that may be.” Can you believe that Akiva called a storekeeper in Lakewood that night and begged him to open his store so that he could purchase a pair of Tefilin?! The storekeeper was hesitant at first, but Akiva insisted that it was incredibly important. The storekeeper eventually agreed and Akiva went to buy Tefilin for someone he had just met, not even 24 hours prior! That’s the Jewish community for you! I wish I could say thank you to that storekeeper, and I thank Akiva every day by wrapping Tefilin.
I came back to Boston rejuvenated. Before I went to bed that Sunday night in Boston, I told my rabbi, Rabbi Greenblat, “Pick me up for the earliest Shacharit tomorrow morning.” At 0550, Rabbi Greenblatt was at my door and off we went to wrap Tefilin and daven. I told myself from that point on that I was going to wrap as much as possible and daven several times a week in the morning. This continued for some time until one day I showed up 3 minutes late to work. As I entered the office, I was pulled into a private room with my boss and a lady from HR. My boss asked why I was late and I explained that my morning prayers ran a few minutes late. My boss looked at me and said that it was unacceptable to pray in the morning if I was going to be late even by 3 minutes. Though I thought this was highly illegal, I felt it was a sign from G-d, and I parted ways from that company immediately. I remained in Boston for several more weeks and then shipped out to study in Jerusalem.
Yeshiva was great. It elevated me to a whole new level. While I was there, I even ran the Jerusalem marathon. The marathon was on a Friday. I finished 2-3 hours before Shabbos, then, despite the high level of pain I was in, I walked back to my Yeshiva. Then, I missed the bus that was bringing all the boys from the Yeshiva to the Kotel, so I sucked it up, put on my Shabbos clothes, and walked all the way Kotel. There’s just something about Shabbos in Jerusalem that energizes you and gives you an extra kick.
In May 2019 after spending 5-6 months at Ohr Sameach, I headed back stateside to take care of some things back home. The return home was tough. Keeping Shabbos in a home where Shabbos wasn’t normally kept was not easy, but I made due and did my best to stay on the path. I remained eating Kosher and often would travel on Friday mornings/afternoons to different locations such as Boston and NY to spend Shabbos with different families. Then in June 2019 I got a call from a Coast Guard recruiter that I had been talking to, he let me know that if I was up for it, I could join the Coast Guard. I knew I wanted to serve the country, and after talking with some friends and family I decided that it was the right choice and the right time. In late June of 2019, I raised my right hand and took my oath of enlistment, and on July 9th I shipped out to Training Center Cape May to begin my journey as a Coastguardsman.
Boot camp was challenging, but I was very lucky because I was given the best set of company commanders one could ask for. For anyone in the coastguard, they know that their CCs are by far some of the most influential people in a new coastguardsman’s career. That rings true in my case as well. Immediately when I got to boot camp, I approached my lead and told her my situation: how I was a religious Jew, my time for praying was Fridays and Saturdays, and I couldn’t eat certain food. My lead, though tough, took care of my needs and always had my back when it came to my religion. If I had it my way, I would’ve had only certified kosher food to eat, but as a recruit you don’t get much say in anything. I maintained a diet that was as kosher as possible, given the circumstances. I was also given time at night to say my evening prayers, along with being able to attend shul on Shabbat. At some point, I went to talk with the chaplain. He informed me that I had made quite the impression on the regiment. When I asked what he meant, he said that everyone knew about the religious Jewish recruit. Apparently, I was the only Jew on regiment out of the 500 something recruits and 200-300 personnel…
Boot camp was tough physically and mentally; and even tougher spiritually, trying to fulfill religious obligations, but at the end of the day I made it through. I give an endless amount of credit to the entire command at TRACEN Cape May, who did everything they could to ensure that my needs were met. They were like pit bulls when it came to ensuring that there was absolutely no discrimination thrown my way. My experience in boot camp gave me high hopes for how I would be treated in the fleet.
I am currently (ed. note: 2019) stationed in the small and isolated town of Valdez, Alaska. The command and crew of my unit are extremely understanding and respectful of my faith. They do everything they can to understand my situation and to accommodate my needs. I’ve only been in the Coast Guard a little over 6 months, and this is my first unit, but I know I got lucky. I couldn’t have asked for a better first unit in terms of the people. Though they can be tough on me at times, and there are the usual disagreements, at the end of the day we are a family and I’m grateful for them. Every night I pray to G-d to watch over them and to keep us all safe.
However, if I’m being honest, as a town, Valdez makes boot camp look like a walk in the park in terms of fulfilling religious obligations. I am the only Jew for 350-400 miles. The closest religious Jew is a 6-hour drive away through mountain passes. The one and only grocery store doesn’t carry challah, matzo ball soup, Kedem grape juice (unless specially ordered), and has a very limited supply on other kosher foods for purchase. There is obviously no shul, so I haven’t prayed with a Minyan since I arrived here, let alone heard a Torah reading. At first, this was incredibly depressing, but then I took a good hard Jewish look at the situation. If we can escape oppression from Pharaoh, wander through the desert, even create a portable Temple and make Judaism work there, then so can I. If we are able to find a way to sneak siddurim into death camps just so that we can pray, then I too can find a way to pray and fulfill religious obligations to the best of my ability in my circumstances. And finally, if Jews all around the world can be ousted from their countries and only given a small sliver of desolate land in the desert, to then go and turn that place into an oasis, a bustling economy, and create the greatest Jewish army the world has ever seen, then little ol’ me has absolutely no excuse to hang my head. I arrived here close to winter, and Alaska is full of darkness during the winter months. But we know, wherever a Jew is, he is the light onto the nations; a representation of Hashem. I know it is my responsibility to be my own light, and serve as the light for others even if the situation looks dark and desolate.
I am very happy to be serving the people of the United States, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. People often ask why I joined the Coast Guard as opposed to other branches, and the answer is simple. The Coast Guard is the only branch focused on saving lives. It rescues people in need, provides relief efforts during major disasters, and seeks to protect and repair whenever possible. By being in the Coast Guard I am able to fulfill the responsibility I believe every American and every Jew has: to help our fellow Americans, and to make this country and the world at large a better and safer place.
That’s my journey thus far. It hasn’t been easy at all, but it has been worth it. I know I have a lot more to learn, but I am looking forward to that process and what the future has to hold. I am proud to be an American, I’m proud to be a Jew, I am proud to be a Coast Guardsman. Semper Paratus!
Originally published in the Purim 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.