By LT Levi Ceitlin, USN CHC
As chaplains, the most common questions we get asked from Jewish service members pertain to religious accommodation. The requests vary depending on the service member’s level of religious observance, however, the chaplain’s response is almost always the same. Here are some useful tips that will always be relevant, no matter the level of your request or your level of religious observance.
The number one key to a successful career and the path of least resistance with regard to religious accommodation is communication. It sounds like a cliché, but that doesn’t take away from the importance or the fact that it works: COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE. Communicate early, communicate often and most importantly, COMMUNICATE RESPECTFULLY! I can’t stress this last one enough.
Let me break it down a bit:
Communicate respectfully: I’m starting with this one because without it, you won’t be heard, no matter how early or often you communicate.
• Know your chain of command and utilize it appropriately. Don’t skip the chain unless it’s absolutely necessary.
• Ask for an appropriate time when you can sit down and talk to your supervisor.
• Using respectful language, frame your need as a request not a demand. Do not threaten EO complaint or legal action without consulting a senior Jewish chaplain and/or Aleph.
Communicate early: Rosh Hashanah has been on the calendar for five and a half thousand years—at the very least you’ve known about it for a hot second! There’s no reason that your ISIC would only be hearing about it a week before.
Besides for the obvious, there are many reasons that you should be communicating religious needs MONTHS in advance. Chief among them are:
• Ordering of supplies: Kosher MREs are rarely kept on hand and depending on your AOR it can sometimes take months to get to you. Kosher for Passover items need to be ordered by Chanukah.
• Field exercises/deployments: While you might not be aware of an evolution scheduled during the next holiday, it’s likely that your ISIC or chaplain does.
• Watch/guard standing: While it’s definitely possible to switch your watch with your friend, it’s certainly a lot more convenient if your need is communicated before the watch bill is published.
Communicate often: So you’ve spoken with your chain of command respectfully and early, and everything is in order, or so you’re told—because the game’s not over. Be sure to follow up—RESPECTFULLY. Your religious accommodation is definitely not the number one priority for your command; after all, they have a lot going on besides your paperwork! If it’s not important to you it won’t be important to them. Yes, you might have just talked to them about Rosh Hashanah and mentioned Yom Kippur to them at the same time, but be sure to talk to them again before Yom Kippur. While they might remember that something is coming up, chances are they don’t remember that it’s tomorrow, or what the exact parameters of your needs were.
Be ready to compromise: I don’t mean you should compromise with your religion, G-d forbid, but rather with your personal comforts. You might need to eat chow a little quicker in order to have enough time to pray. Perhaps the watch you’ll stand will be the least desirable instead of standing watch on Shabbat. (Although I might add that there is a difference between taking a watch schedule that is less desirable to make the accommodation work and being implicitly punished for the RA request by being given the worst option. That’s a very fine line that requires good judgement and, quite possibly advice from a chaplain and/or JAG to figure out what’s just bad luck and what’s discrimination. But that’s a conversation unto itself.) You might need to eat MREs for two weeks while your friends eat steak. You may even need to take leave in order to observe a holiday. Communicating with your chain of command and your team that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to honor your religion while still fulfilling the mission will set you up for success.
This brings me to the next point:
Be a stellar service member beyond reproach: Give them no reason to even suspect for a second that you are trying to get out of work. I mentioned the importance of communicating with your chain of command. However, it’s equally important to communicate with your fellow service members who will be picking up the slack while you’re gone. Make sure they understand, to the best of your ability, and make sure they know you appreciate their efforts on your behalf.
Don’t go about it alone: Talk to your chaplain and Aleph—they are there to help. Let them know immediately if your command is giving you any trouble.
With strong communication skills and a solid support system in place, there will be no obstacle too difficult to overcome.
Originaaly published in the 3 Weeks 5782 issue of the Jewish-American Warrior.