CAPT Alan Spira, Medical Corps, USN
I’ve done 21 years of service, roughly four of Active Duty and the rest Reserve. Most of my career has been serving the Marine Corps (18 years), usually as a Medical Officer, and my time with the Marines has been entirely fulfilling. I’ve gone overseas six times for the military, and my military career is coming to a close as I’ve submitted the paperwork for retirement.
My most relevant religious experience in the military took place in Iraq. The Navy rabbi laid upon me the duty of religious lay leader for Jews in Al Asad in 2006, which I felt totally unqualified for. Thanks to Aleph, I had material to help me in this role, without which I could not have survived. We didn’t once make a minyan, as Jews were either in hiding as Marranos — there were few openly Jewish troops in the Navy or Marines — or on duty with the Marines. During this tour fell the High Holidays. The Iraqi interpreter told me that on the base was an oasis which legend had it that our Patriarch Avraham stopped at on his way to the Holy Land. It’s a grove rich in palms and reeds, and a startling contrast to the glaring barrenness of the Iraqi desert. My chaplain escorted me to the oasis, and I spent Yom Kippur there praying in solitude. It was an uplifting and poignant experience as I contemplated on our courageous ancestor Avraham, alone in his belief in One G-d, taking on the journey that would change the world.
In my military experience I only experienced anti-Semitism once directly and once indirectly, and I think the latter was only parsimony. I had the misfortune to have a CO who could not restrain his feelings that Jews killed his Lord. This came out twice while I served under him, and the Sailors and Marines around me were as mortified as I, but after a serious discussion with him, I heard no more of his hateful speech. The other experience was a failure to provide kosher MREs because I was the only one who asked for them and the unit said it was too expensive for one person out of 1,200. I managed nevertheless, and kosher beef jerky became a food group.
Overall I had little issues being a Jew in the military. When I requested time for prayer or religious ceremonies, it was granted graciously. I’ve enjoyed Shabbat and holidays in the field while in remote and exotic locales as well as in the beautiful temple at the Norfolk Navy base. I can’t complain about being a Jew in the military; it’s been an honor to serve our nation, the freest and most noble country on earth, based on Judeo-Christian ethics. My heart will always be with the Marine Corps, who treated me with respect and honor. I hope other Jews are willing to be open about their faith while serving and let our American brethren know that we are as committed to the United States as they are.
Originally printed in the July-August 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.