The US military is blessed with outstanding chaplains, who will go above and beyond in their efforts to make sure that all service members in their command have their religious needs accommodated, in keeping with the free exercise of religion clause of the US Constitution. Still, gaps in knowledge of minority religious needs often results in those needs not being met, by no fault of the chaplain’s. We aim to bridge that gap regarding Judaism and Jewish Service Members with this essay, a sister-article to a previous one (5 Things We Wish Every Jewish Service Member Knew). Here are 5 interrelated points, knowledge of which will help non-Jewish chaplains effectively assist Jewish Service Members within their AOR.
As non-overt minorities, most American Jews do not wear their religion on their sleeves, or their heads. But we chaplains wear our religion proudly on our chests for all to see, and that has an impact, for better or, unfortunately, occasionally for worse. Perhaps you’ve met a Jewish Service Member or two who politely brushed you off. The reason is probably that you are being judged based on your religious symbol: as one of the few non-Christians in the room or unit, they may think that they really don’t need you.
But as chaplains, we understand that one of our essential responsibilities is to make sure all Service Members and their families have their religious needs accommodated, whether or not they are of the same faith tradition as you, their chaplain. To do that, you need to clearly explain to the Jewish Service Member that your job is to support every member, regardless of your own and his or her faith group. It is likely you will need to overcome a certain degree of misunderstanding of your motives for fear that they are being proselytizing. We hope the next items on our list will help you do so. But in any case, please be aware of one other issue: we often seek commonality in order to create bonds with those from different backgrounds. However, while well-meaning, equating your religion’s observances to Judaism often creates a level of distrust, especially considering our next point.
Judaism is very different in ritual and structure than most other religions. For example, the center of many religions is “salvation through belief”. In contrast, daily life for an observant Jew is regulated by the commandments, which result in observance and ritual. All Judaic to-dos and do-nots are called Mitzvot, translated as “commandments”. Belief, community and prayer are but aspects of Jewish service.
Surprisingly, this gives you unique opportunities to help, as there are many instances where the Service Member may need your involvement to ensure s/he can fulfill his/her individual religious obligations in military circumstances. Your sensitivity towards those needs will make all the difference.
Still, there is obvious value in communal service. As a low-density faith in the military, creating Jewish communities can sometimes prove to be near impossible. But there is one leeway that makes it easier to do so: Judaism does not require an ordained rabbi or chaplain to lead services. Chaplains should seek out the Jewish lay leader (DFGL) for their installations. If none exists, you should facilitate the approval of one, with the help of the senior installation chaplain and a Jewish endorsing agency such as our own Aleph Institute.
When a chaplain first meets a Jewish Service Members, typically one of the first questions asked is, “What Jewish denomination do you identify with?” In general, we prefer the term “movement” over the term “denomination”, as the terms are not as hard and fast as they are in Christianity. But from a chaplain’s religious-accommodation standpoint, whatever answer given does not provide tremendous insight.
Here’s why: a Jew will typically answer this question based on the synagogue he or she belonged to growing up, regardless of whether it matches the level of their familial or personal religious standards. I’ve met Jews who formally identify as Reform, yet their observance matches Orthodox practice; while other Jews I know do quite the opposite, and yet others, everything in between. To give a parallel example from the Christian world: it would be fairly ridiculous for someone to identify as a Catholic, keep Sabbath like a Seventh Day Adventist, attend Baptist services and have a family pastor who is Anglican. But the rough “equivalent” in Judaism would be quite common for American Jews.
In the military, the only thing that is important is what – if any – accommodations will be needed to facilitate this individual’s practice of their religion. Therefore the most pertinent question is not what denomination they are, but rather, “What kinds of Jewish observances do you follow?” Their response will inform you with the types of support and assistance they will need.
You can expect a majority of your Jewish Service Members to respond with a vanilla, “Well, I’m not very observant.” But when gently pressed, you will probably learn that they do have a few holidays that they endeavor to celebrate (most commonly, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Chanukah and Passover), and will, in fact, need your assistance at some point to do so – whether that means getting time off from duty, obtaining religious materials or permission to light candles in the barracks.
You might be surprised to see a Jewish Service Member glance at the month of September in the calendar and exclaim in utter exasperation, “The holidays are in the middle of the week this year!” No one emotionally reacts to a calendar the way a Jewish person does. We’ll try to explain that and a few other oddities here:
The Jewish calendar works by a lunar cycle kept in check with the solar calendar (unlike the Muslim calendar), making sure all holidays fall out in the natural seasons (unlike Ramadan). That’s why Chanukah (spell it however you want) is sometimes celebrated a month before Christmas, or even after. It also means that a holiday can begin on any day of the week. A religiously observant Jew is not permitted to do any work that is not involved with the saving of lives on the two opening and closing days of the holidays of Passover and Sukkot, as well as on the holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Shavuot. When those days fall out during the work week, someone’s boss is probably going to be annoyed. Hence the above-mentioned frustration.
Jewish holidays, including the weekly Sabbath, start at sundown, and end after nightfall. So the Jewish Sabbath starts Friday afternoon, depending on whatever time sunset occurs, and ends Saturday night, 25 hours later. (On some installations, Sabbath services occur at a fixed time throughout the year for uniformity, but that is a separate conversation.) This means that the work limitations we mentioned begin, during winter and in extreme locations, very early – even during Friday’s work day.
The holidays of Chanukah and Purim do not have work restrictions, but they do have specific religiously mandated rituals that need to be performed during either daytime or nighttime.
All of this can be dealt with, and chances are that you, as the chaplain, are going to be involved at some point. But again, the accommodation needs depend on the individual Service Member’s observance, not their affiliation.
(For information on this year’s Jewish calendar, click here.)
“Kosher” is a generic term to refer to any food that is itself permitted by Jewish law, has been prepared only with other such foods, and in utensils in which only such foods have been prepared. (It has nothing to do with a Rabbi blessing the food. Also, Kosher is not the same thing as Halal.) All raw fruits and vegetables are kosher.
Most Exchanges have some kosher food in stock, as a significant amount of food in the US market has Kosher supervision. You’ve probably seen the OU or OK symbols, as well as many others, without identifying them as symbols that proclaim this product has Kosher supervisors who visit the plants to make sure all the ingredients of the product and the assembly lines remain unsullied by non-kosher foods or ingredients. You can find a list of kosher supervision symbols here.
“Kosher for Passover” is a completely different beast. Jews are mandated to eat only Kosher for Passover foods from the morning prior to Passover, and throughout all 8 days of the holidays. Kosher for Passover foods are strictly non-leavened. No leavened products may come in contact with the food, even if it is strictly Kosher.
In training situations, especially in Basic, extra effort needs to be made to assist trainees to get food in accordance with their Kosher diet. We are aware of all too many young trainees who have had a very difficult time ensuring Kosher food was made available to them. Even after graduation, there may be issues: if your Service Member is junior enlisted, he or she might need permission for separate rations or to have a small food-prep station or microwave in the barracks. Both regular Kosher and Kosher for Passover MREs exist, and need to be requested from the DLA with enough time to get them to your Service Member. Whether or not your Jewish Service Member keeps strict kosher or some aspect of it, consideration of their dietary needs will certainly be greatly appreciated.
Spirituality is one of the military’s Pillars of Resilience. We chaplains feed that spirituality in accordance with the needs of each individual Service Member. We hope these 5 keys will assist you to do so, helping ensure that the Jewish Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines under your responsibility have all their religious needs met, leaving them fit to fight. Obviously, we at the Aleph Institute will do all we can to help you in this most vital work. We are proud to be your partners.
For more information on accommodating standard Jewish practices, please read this article.