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CH (LTC) Yoni Zagdanski, USAR. 

Thanks to Hashem, I’ve just celebrated my 23rd year with the U.S. Army (9 years AD; 14 years Res.) and I must say that I still love serving Uncle Sam, especially as an observant Jew and a Chaplain. I realize that everyone has different experiences being Jewish in the U.S. Military, but I’d like to share some of my own experiences and the challenges I had to face as an observant Jew. I hope this account will provide some guidance and inspiration to my fellow MOTs.

The only overtly anti-Semitic experience I had as a Jew in the Army was while assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment – only six months after enlisting. I was a brand new Ranger (a.k.a. a Cherry Ranger). I was not yet observant, but did strongly identify as a Jew and did not hide that fact to my fellow Rangers. One of them, PFC H., thought it would be amusing to call me “Kike.” I tried explaining to him that the word “Kike” is quite derogatory and insulting to Jews, to no avail. We were both PFCs at the time, but he outranked me by virtue of the fact that he had seniority over me in Ranger. I was slightly disappointed that no one in my Chain-of-Command intervened to correct the situation. I realized I was left alone to deal with this situation. I considered submitting an Equal Opportunity complaint, which would initiate an investigation of the whole Chain-of-Command. But I thought that doing so would not only single me out as a Jew, but also cause a loss of respect towards me. So, I opted for option B – a personal Krav Maga lesson for PFC H. It worked wonders!

PFC H. was “convinced” never to call me, or any Jew for that matter, by that name; and I never again had a problem with him. Looking back, I don’t think PFC H. was an anti-Semite; he was just an ignorant 6’ 2” redneck from Washington State who thought Jews are afraid to fight or get their hands dirty. I do believe that this stereotype is unfortunately still quite prevalent among working class white Americans.

Soon after, I found myself in Ranger School. Ranger students rarely go to the Dining Facility during the first phase of Ranger School. But on the occasions they do, they are told to move quickly through the line, keep their mouths shut and eat their food in two minutes or less. Of course, it’s not a restaurant and so the food gets slapped onto your plate whether you want it or not. I got served mashed potatoes, beans, and a big slice of bacon. On my way out of the DFAC, a Ranger Instructor yelled, “Why aren’t you eating all your chow, Ranger?!” I replied as directly as I could: “Sergeant, I am Jewish and Jews don’t eat pork.” He glared at me; his face became bright red. The veins in his throat seemed like they were going to pop. He finally shouted: “Get the hell out of my DFAC, Ranger!” 

A few months after graduating Ranger School, I decided to start keeping Shabbos. I was then beginning Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning. I asked to meet with my Company Commander to explain my restrictions. The meeting did not go too well. He told me that he was himself was partly Jewish, but proceeded to explain why the Army should take priority over religion. “Israel was attacked on the holiest day of Yom Kippur and they fought back,” he said. “It is true Sir, but that was war. Saving a life supersedes the Sabbath, but training does not.” I replied. I stuck to my guns, and fully expected to appear in front of the School Commandant, but that did not happen. I was allowed to observe Shabbos during the course.

A similar incident happened during the Infantry Officer Basic Course (IOBC). Looking at the training schedule, I noticed that graduation day was going to take place on Yom Kippur, of all days! (Someone should’ve fired the Operations Officer!). This time, I did have to explain to the Battalion Commander why I could not attend. “I understand,” he said flatly, and added: “But you do understand that missing graduation means you will have to repeat the whole course – all 16 weeks.” “Yes, sir; I understand,” I said without hesitation. In the end, they had me repeat only the final exercise with the next class, and I graduated with them three weeks later.

Within a few months of graduating IOBC, I found myself in the sands of Kuwait in charge of a mechanized mortar platoon. We knew we were invading Iraq; it was just a matter of time. Life in Camp New-Jersey, Kuwait was not exactly comfortable. We all slept in 60-men tents on cots. Privacy was not part of the package. Nothing I could do… I had to put on my Tefillin in full view of all my soldiers. The first time I put them on, an awkward silence fell inside the tent. I could tell my soldiers had no idea what their Platoon Leader was doing. They must’ve thought I belonged to some strange cult. But after a month or two, they totally got used to it; they even asked me questions about the “box on my head.”

My biggest challenge while deployed was – what to eat! I grew tired of eating cucumbers and tomatoes at the D-FAC. So I went to see the supply Sergeant and asked him to order Kosher MRE’s. He did so, and two weeks later a truck pulled up by the supply point and unloaded a pallet (48 boxes!) of Kosher MREs. I took four boxes and left the rest behind. Why only four? Well, we all thought the war was going to be over in a couple of weeks! The next day, I noticed that all the Kosher MRE’s were gone! After walking around the Battalion area, I realized everyone was eating Kosher MREs! “Hey, you guys realize that y’all are eating Kosher MREs?” I said to a group of soldiers. One responded, “Yes sir, but they’re a thousand times better than the regular MREs!!” Go figure… 

A few years after that deployment, I decided to leave combat arms and become an Army Reserve Chaplain. After my accession, I found a unit in Germany and started drilling every month on Saturdays and Sundays. Drilling on Saturdays obviously poses certain challenges. But my best advice to my younger colleagues is to be up front with your Commander and Chaplain Supervisor. There are some good religious accommodation memorandums out there. I would also encourage all observant soldiers to write up a memo listing all Jewish holidays for the whole Fiscal Year. This way, your Commander can track ahead of time and there are no surprises. 

One of the challenges you may have while drilling on Shabbos is having to walk from your barracks room to your unit. My esteemed colleague, Chaplain Shlomo Shulman, is quite familiar with long Shabbos walks.

Another challenge has to do with sign-in and out on the personnel roster. I always explained to the NCO that I could not sign, but would sign the next day. CH Shulman also created a memorandum for that very purpose.

For me personally, Shabbos at my unit is my best days as a Chaplain. Why? Simply because there are no electronic interruptions; no email, no computer training, no slides, no phones, etc. I am with the soldiers all day and I just talk to them all day; ministry of presence at its best! If I have to attend a meeting, I just sit there and participate as best I can.

In closing, I would like to offer some advice to my younger colleagues based on my years of experience as both a combat officer and a Chaplain:

  1. Break the stereotypes: As I mentioned earlier, stereotypes about Jews are still well alive. So break them by being fit, appear confident, and talk straight. When you are asked a question, answer as directly as possible. Your Commander, peers, and fellow soldiers do not want to hear Talmudic-style answers. Leave that for Shul or Yeshiva. When you brief, gives numbers, or percentages. Army folks love stats. For example: “Sir, our UMT at the 457th performed 3 ACE briefs, 12 counselings, and two hospital visits.” Finally, go out where the soldiers are and don’t be afraid of getting under a vehicle on a cold day. Get those hands dirty! Your soldiers will respect you for that. And if the soldiers respect you, your commander will respect you, and you’ll be a walking Kiddush Hashem machine. But if they don’t respect you, you will have a bitter experience in the Army.
  2. Always be joyful. Army life is not always a picnic and there are many ups and downs. If you keep that smile going even when the going gets tough (pay issues, no promotion, lack of supplies, toxic leadership, etc.), you will bring a loud and thunderous message that says: “I believe in Hashem, and He decides everything; I am just happy with my lot.” You will become a magnet, drawing people to you, and soldiers will ask for your help in becoming more spiritual.

Best of success to all of you!

CH (LTC) Yoni Zagdanski is the Command Chaplain for the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, based out of New York, but with coverage across Europe and Africa. He lives with his wife and children in Israel.

Originally published in the Chanukah 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.