By 1LT Chaim Aryeh Urist, USA
Over my 10 years in the Army—six as enlisted and four as an officer, and through moves across eight states, Torah study has kept me going and helped me not feel lost.
Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah, so I do not think it a coincidence that it was the first holiday I encountered in the military when I joined back in 2013. I was in reception, and during that week of filling out paperwork, I remember being worried about the next part of basic, particularly the hazing I was told I’d endure. I remember turning off my phone before the holiday started and feeling extremely
anxious about how it was all going to go. I don’t think I ever prayed so intensely in my life as that first Shavuot in basic.
Truthfully, it was the first time I ever dealt with issues related to Shabbat and holiday observance. I had worked myself up into such a state that I half believed I was going to die, although that was mostly coming from a number of my alarmist friends and relatives, who thought it prudent to regale me with horror stories of what would happen to me. It turned out that my fears were not entirely unfounded, although it wasn’t as bad as everyone predicted.
While I obviously didn’t die in basic, it was very intense and I often felt completely on my own. Wearing my kippah, for example, was a big deal. I also made sure to put on tefillin every morning, which I am very proud of. I also had to do a delicate balancing act when it came time to eat. I distinctly remember a drill sergeant ordering me to eat bacon and throwing boxes of kosher food at me as I tried to explain what kosher was. Thankfully, things have improved a lot for me since then.
After that first holiday which strengthened my resolve, I find that everywhere I go, Torah learning keeps me going. I like to encourage my fellow Jews wherever they are to pick up a book or download a Torah app. If I meet someone who expresses an interest in learning, I make time to be their study partner. During my hour-plus commute from the base, I do a lot of learning in the car with an audio Torah app. I try to contribute Jewishly as much as possible by leading services and teaching Torah classes. I put together a semi-weekly class for service members. This particular class is based on a halachic textbook from the 1890s for Jews in the military and contains direction on how to function as a Jew in circumstances such as ours.
My experience has taught me that one can find creative ways to keep Judaism in the military, and I have found rabbinic guidance extremely helpful. The bottom line is that I have seen firsthand how it’s possible to keep one’s Jewish observance and stay true to our beliefs.
Originally published in The Shavuot 5783 Jewish-American Warrior Magazine