By: A1C Mariel Bloom, USAF
My name is Mariel Bloom. I served in the Air Force for three years as an E3 and spent the majority of that time assigned to a communications squadron in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I served as an Aleph Institute Lay Leader for the majority of my time on active duty. I was also responsible for Minot AFB, Cavalier Air Station, and Ellsworth AFB. I’d like to share with you what I learned from my experiences.
I was raised as a proud American, and a proud Jew. From the time I was three years old and started lighting Shabbos candles, I was familiar with the concept of military life. I was taught that my actions serve a greater good. That I was just one part of a bigger plan, and everything I did, no matter how big or small it felt, was one step closer to mission accomplished. Does this sound familiar? It should. When I asked why I wore skirts and why my brother wore tzitzit, I was told it was our uniform. Military phrases were not uncommon in my childhood.
No less a Jewish authority than the Lubavitcher Rebbe compared Jews to soldiers. He once wrote, “Every Jew is always a ‘soldier’ in the service of G-d, including the duty of spreading G-dliness among fellow-Jews, with emphasis on the actual deed, namely, fulfillment of G-d’s commands, the Mitzvos, in the daily life.”
I’ll be the first to admit there are so many challenges and problems with being Jewish in the military. But there are difficulties with being Jewish and living a fulfilling Jewish life, too, right? Aren’t we all taught that life is full of choices and we are constantly making the choice between our good soul and our bad soul? Being a Jewish lay leader just felt like a natural continuation of living a G-dly life. The most important thing I brought with me from my Jewish upbringing is that experience with picking and choosing my battles, knowing the right thing hard might be really hard and doing it anyway. In order to have success as a lay leader you have to know what it is worth fighting for.
The battles I chose to fight were figuring out a supply chain, establishing a method of communicating with the Jewish troops and getting a good understanding of what religious accommodations were in writing and what we are actually entitled to. I also chose to focus on education and representation. Many people assume that lay leaders just plan a lot of Shabbat dinners, and that may be true at some locations. Planning events was a much smaller component for me. During my entire two years in North Dakota, we only had a handful of small events.
Firstly, let me give you a little context of what we were up against in North Dakota because location did dictate some of the success and challenges I did have. North Dakota is known for its harsh winter weather. A typical winter day will see temperatures plunge down to negative -30º before wind chill. In the winter the sun comes up for a couple hours at most and sets around lunch time. In the summer the sun goes down at two am. There is a history of Jewish people in the area, but more often than not I was the first Jew people encountered. There are eight different known hate groups and a well-organized neo-Nazi community in the south-west corner of the state. My commander asked me not to wear my Jewish star while traveling around because occasionally I’d run into situations where I was told I couldn’t stop for gas. If Kosher Troop and Aleph packages got waylaid for snow, we didn’t have any other options fo finding Judaica items. Have you ever seen a kosher shelf at a rural Walmart? You know that all they have are yahrzeit candles and not-kosher-for-Passover matzah that expired not long after the Jews left Egypt. Our closest kosher grocery store was two hours away across the border in Winnipeg Canada. Otherwise we had to drive to Minneapolis about six hours away. The closest Chabad, in Fargo, ND, was a two-hour drive one way in good weather. At the time there was no Chabad in South Dakota.
The first challenge was establishing a supply chain in North Dakota. For that, I had a major advantage in that I worked closely with the admin troops in the mail room, so I was able to take responsibility for shipments from Aleph and Kosher Troops.
We are so fortunate to have these resources mailed to us around every major holiday, but if they get sent to an overwhelmed chaplain, those resources might sit in the basement until someone takes responsibility for handing them out to the troops. Sometimes a chaplain might not be on the Aleph mailing list or even aware of what the options are for Jewish troops. It is critical that you develop a good relationship with your local chaplains, regardless of their denomination. They are your biggest allies, and if you do not develop a good working relationship, this just makes your job as a lay leader virtually impossible. I learned quickly that if I could make it very easy for troops to get supplies, they were more likely to request them and use them. My base actually had five or six boxes in the basement of Jewish books, kippahs, and Shabbos candles. My first task was inventorying what we had available and then organizing and distributing it.
Once I built rapport and earned support from my chaplains, my next project was finding Jews. Grand Forks is a tiny base, with less than 1,300 personnel. The statistics were not in my favor, but I knew if there was even one Jew on that base I had the obligation to help them out. It may seem like a lot of work for one person, but North Dakota emphasizes why every SINGLE person needs to have their faith supported. You can’t live in a place where the sun never comes up and your job is to press the nuke buttons without any faith or support. And I didn’t want to be the person telling our one Jewish missileer we couldn’t get him matzah!
Grand Forks was so small my chaplain would walk around to all the squadrons once a month to check on people. I persuaded him to let me tag along. I might have utilized our most powerful weapon to achieve this; Jewish guilt. I was allowed to tag along so long I didn’t directly ask anyone if they were Jewish. My hope was that when I walked around with the chaplain, I could introduce myself as the Jewish lay leader and then hope that they reached out to me.
This actually worked: I found that several Jews on base would volunteer this information once I mentioned I was Jewish. No one wants to be the first to out themselves, but once they found themselves in the company of another Jew they felt comfortable saying, “Oh, I was raised Jewish,” or “Wow! I thought I was the only one.”
This was one of many times when my chaplain was my biggest ally. He also invited me to be a speaker at the base prayer breakfast and got me in touch with the Force Support Squadron to get candle lighting and dinner time at Chabad in Fargo listed in the weekly email newsletter. What these two outreach opportunities resulted in was reaching Jews who were not accessible through military channels. I had an officer who wasn’t in the Jewish email list because he wasn’t Jewish, but after hearing me speak at the prayer breakfast contacted me to let me know his wife and children were Jewish.
None of this happened overnight. It took a while to establish relationships and develop trust with base leadership. I had to do all that before I could even attempt to start hosting events and educating. I had to prove myself a constant and steady voice for the Jewish people. I know there are lay leaders who get discouraged and quit and I don’t blame them. Being a Jewish lay leader requires resilience and patience. I won’t pretend that the rejections weren’t hard and planning events that no one showed up to can be discouraging.
Once I had developed rapport with leadership, I started working with Capt Chaim Stitzer to develop a Judaism 101 for our leadership teams. When someone starts the process of requesting religious accommodations the first step is educating their leadership. I know that we don’t have to explain o r justify religious accommodations but knew it would streamline the process for future troops. Realistically, leadership is going to want to know about kosher before signing off on the accommodations that make it possible. If a troop has a leader that already knows about kosher and why it matters, the application process is much smoother and faster.
My chaplain was reassigned to Hulburt AFB a few years ago and took with him everything he learned. This is an example of how being a lay leader has a ripple effect to bases you may never actually set foot in.
Representation of Judaism was probably one of the biggest challenges of being a lay leader. When you take on the role of subject matter expert in Judaism, you suddenly become the face of an entire people. …No pressure, right? Especially when you are often the first Jew someone knows, all they know about Judaism is what you show them. This can be really hard because it means doing what is best for representation first, no matter what. When you are representing the Jewish people, you have an immense weight on your shoulders. It can be daunting to represent such a diverse group of people. A few times, I tried explaining to my leadership that Judaism was practiced by every Jew personally. We have a similar issue with being military, don’t we? As Airmen, Soldiers, Marines, we represent a diverse group of people who wear the same or similar uniforms and come from the same core belief system, but we know we are different. Civilians don’t know this though; they just think we are all soldiers and go to fight wars and shoot guns. I know that I do not represent the US Army or Reform Judaism but that does not make me exempt from being a good example of both. Regardless of whether or not someone knows that I’m actually Chasidic and Air Force, they just see a Jew and a soldier. I have to be responsible for that representation, whether it’s accurate or not.
My lay leader duties remain one of my proudest moments in the military. There were many difficulties; with leadership, with supplies, and with people. I could have found many, many reasons to quit. There were events where no one showed up. I once got told, to my face, “I asked for a Rabbi and I got a little girl instead?” But I am descended from a group of people that have survived thousands of years of persecution, rumors, exile and genocide. Jews and military; we have to live our lives with distinction and conviction, and resiliency. We never let the negativity stop us from doing what is right.
I want to close with another quote from the Rebbe, from the same letter I referenced earlier. “In the case of a military outpost facing increased pressure, the answer is not to abandon the front, but to call out reserves and reinforcements, so also in the case of facing a personal challenge. It is certain that the inner forces are there, for G-d would not give one a task which is beyond one’s capacity to carry out.”
I know that despite the challenges I faced that this was what I was meant to do in the military. I highly encourage enlisted Jews to take on this challenge, not because it’s easy, but because it’s the right thing to do. Many of us enlisted knowing military service wouldn’t be easy but we chose to do it because we felt a call to take care of our nation and our people, a commitment to preserving our freedom and safety and security. How is being a Jewish lay leader any different? I wholly believe that if G-d presents you with an opportunity to be those reinforcements to take care of your people despite the pressures placed upon you, that you should go for it. You are a Jew, and that is all you need. Well, that, some grape juice, jarred gefilte fish, and a Jewish calendar.
Originally published in the Chanukah 2020 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.