By: SGM Ed (Hillel) Lemus, USMC
Living as both a Jew and an active duty service member in America is difficult enough, and private non-profit organizations like the Aleph Institute and JFAM have tried to compensate for the Defense shortcomings in ensuring the adequate survival of Jewish heritage and worship for troops. But there are two overlooked, even neglected and dismissed yet essential facets of emunah in the American military: Jewish military families, and Jewish Marines. When you are a member of both marginalized groups, not only are you the fewer (and no less proud) but also your ability to perform mitzvot and remain connected to Hashem is largely expected to be done only internally rather than resources permitting.
Like the stigma that exists regarding speaking to your command during a mental health crisis, the Jewish Marine and his or her dependent military family are perhaps spiritually expected to ‘rough it’, and hope that after twenty years of active duty service, they are still actively Jewish: the same resources that exist for other branches, and the same religious support for religious Jewish Marine spouses simply do not exist. At least, this is how my wife and family have come to feel after my twenty years of service.
This is not to lament a dearth of Yiddishkeit in the Marine Corps, though there is; that shortage is par for the course and, under the right circumstances, can make the rarity of our existence that much more Maccabean and sacred. The Aleph Institute has provided generously for troops’ literary resources (donating seforim such as tehillim, torah, tanach, siddurim, machzorim, and Shabbat primers). JFAM (Jewish Friends of the American Military) has stretched its own resources thin across difference branches to try to meet Marines and their families at Camp Pendleton and overseas under Rabbi/Chaplain David Becker, US Army Reserves. However, there exist zero concrete resources for our spouses to teach Jewish education at home on base beyond some paid online programs – which, if the COVID crisis has taught us anything, further disconnect humans from reality.
In order to maintain a sense of Judaism in remote areas, my wife has come out of pocket to teach Jewish/Hebrew school to the tiny Jewish community in the High Desert due to an absence of homeschool Hebrew school supports for military families living on and off base. We were unable to afford Hebrew schools much of the time, and during those times we could afford it, we were left to the mercy of denominational synagogues that tended to be concentrated in areas fortunate enough to be near Marine Corps or Naval bases. But due to our mobile existence as active duty military, we can never definitely say under current conditions that we Jewish Marines will always have a Jewish military community to come home to.
While stationed at Camp Pendleton, a non-sectarian yet Torah-observant Shabbat service was available on the third Friday of every month to every Marine (and Sailor) and, most importantly, to his spouse and children. Herein, Jews from not only every level of observance were lovingly welcomed to the sanctity of Torah and meaning of Shabbat, but Jews from the Philippines, from El Salvador like myself, from Israel, the Middle East, from America, and the Balkans who all unite under the principles of the U.S. Constitution could discuss parashah in ways that were meaningful and relevant to mission readiness and operations at hand – OPSEC permitting.
Rabbi/Chaplain Aaron Kleinman was instrumental in orchestrating these events, and the collation of larger scale services for High Holy Days became a team effort with Rabbi/Chaplain David Becker of the U.S. Army – a man who is a Rabbi by primary trade in Los Angeles and who felt so moved by this dire need for Torah observance in the Marine Corps and in other branches that he sought his wife’s permission to commission! (Debbie Becker, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU for lending us your husband and for your own selfless dedication to bring Judaism to the most neglected military communities and their families!) But we don’t have enough Chaplain Beckers and Kleinmans, and the lay leader program has taken a tremendous fiscal hit. Once the obvious conduit between emunah and observance, the lay leader was an instrument component of mission readiness as he or she served to make faith and learning accessible to every military family, everywhere. Sadly, the DoD has decided that the lay leader is only relevant to active duty personnel overseas, and not at home nor for families.
If our families are not considered essential components of mission readiness, then individual morale and thus eventually unit morale are compromised. A clear message with this fiscal change was sent that obscure Jewish military families are unimportant, and perhaps even a liability to expenditures at home. The solution for Jewish military communities like those tiny ones lost and fragmented aboard Twentynine Palms Marine Base is, “You’re on your own. Be Jewish somewhere else, or better luck at your next base.” There simply aren’t enough chaplains conducive to sustaining Jewish military, making the lay leader an essential but dismissed advocate for the Jewish Marine and his family.
My wife has tried to start the first synagogue in Yucca Valley, where we own our home. She has taught limited Hebrew School in our dining room, helping girls prepare for Bat Mitzvah, and hopes to resume once the COVID crisis has diminished. But without establishing a 501c(3), she is on her own as far as resources. Without continued training as a lay leader and without Marine Corps family access to those lay leaders, we are on our own to determine what spiritual weapons are needed to train Jewish Marine Corps families for the coming battles of our neshamot. And in that wake, we have watched our spirituality and observance suffer.
Providers of Jewish military materials will not provide home schooling Hebrew School materials to active duty military families who are not themselves affiliated with the provider’s denomination. The lay leader program has been relegated to overseas or sea duty capacity. There are zero Shabbat services on our base. Where do we go? We keep it inside. I urge all Jewish service members – even those who don’t feel more than culturally connected to their Jewishness – to perform the huge mitzvah of taking advantage of services whenever provided. Please show the Marine Corps and our Department of Defense that we exist and that we need our communities – klal Yisrael – to help reinforce our ethical resolve during a time when the U.S. Constitution is also becoming a burden or is seen as obsolete by so much of the country. The majority of Jewish personnel I’ve encountered who are not chaplains are non-religious, and though they may desire a deeper religious connection ritualistically, as a SgtMaj I’m limited in how I approach them to prevent accusations of fraternization or favoritism.
Despite our restricted ritual assistance with observing Judaism in the Marine Corps, we have an obligation as patriots who believe in rights ordained not by man but by G-D to continue our spiritual training and preparedness to avoid losing our place among our People and America as a whole. This is the core principle of being Ohr hagoyim – a light, or influence unto the Nations. As we head into 2021, it is my tikvah, my hope, that as a SgtMaj of Marines at Twentynine Palms, that my family and other Jewish military families left to worship in obscurity muster the resolve to continue being both Jewish and patriotic in physical and spiritual galut (exile). We will be connected with a Jewish military community again. Chazak, chazak, venit chazek: Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened.
Originally published in the Purim 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.