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Community is a cornerstone of the Jewish tradition. In fact, classical Hebrew gives us three different and distinct words for community, edah, tzibbur and kehillah. While they all still translate to community in English, each signifies a unique facet of what brings us together and bonds us. Edah is a community of like-minded people, or a community of shared and common interest. Tzibbur is just a pile and the most basic form of community. Whether you’re waiting at the DMV  or a minyan is formed on the streets of Brooklyn, tzibbur is formed by numbers and not by identity. The third word for community is kehillah and it is a bit different than the other two. A kehillah gathers together the individual contributions of many to collectively say “we did this.” It turns the chaos of a tzibbur, with the shared goal of an edah and fully forms a community.

Soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardians, and even marines genuinely embody all three facets of community in many ways, but what I remember most from over a decade in the United States Army is the true formation of a kehillah. It is the greatest challenge of any community and one that I have seen a handful of times as a Jewish soldier in the United States Army. I’m not just talking about holding a seder in Khandahar, or sucking it up after the sixth straight day of rain at a JRTC rotation, or whatever airmen think is hard. Some of the strongest communities I’ve seen are Jewish service members stationed overseas with their families and coming together to celebrate holidays and share in our rich, storied tradition.

Being stationed overseas with your family is a unique and challenging experience and especially for Jewish servicemembers. I was stationed in Italy with the 173rd Airborne in Vicenza, Italy from 2016 to 2019. My wife and I lovingly call this duty station our three-year, taxpayer paid, European vacation. We had the incredible opportunity to travel and experience all that Europe has to offer. However, we found what was lacking was an easy connection to other Jews and Jewish identity.

When we were stationed at JBLM in Washington State, we were only a 10-minute drive from a familiar civilian synagogue. We visited civilian friends in Seward Park for Shabbat or easily walked into a Purim party at the on-post chapel and read the megillah with fellow soldiers. This is the same experience I had at Ft. Bragg, NC or Ft. Belvoir, VA.

Even deployments are different. While the bond with your fellow soldiers can form the tightest knit community, it is natural and essential. To borrow from Shakespeare, “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.” Community is organic and ironclad.

When we were OCONUS, a Jewish community wasn’t easy and certainly wasn’t natural. It took work, coordination, and planning. We saw edah, tzibbur, and kehillah. In a tzibbur of Americans living overseas, we were a small edah of Jews. There was no familiar synagogue just off post with that good kiddush, no kosher food section at the grocery store, and an English-speaking rabbi was hard to find. But with the innate human desire to come together, we worked to form a community. The closest chaplains only flew in for holidays and we had to rely on support from organizations like Aleph for supplies of menorahs and candles. But most of our community was self-made and it was a delight to build.

Being stationed with your family overseas can be a strange and isolating experience for anyone. While it is often overshadowed by combat deployments or unaccompanied tours, the longing for community cannot be missed. The friends that we made while stationed in Europe are still some of our closest. We made a kehillah and formed a community. This is the greatest testament to our collective achievement. Even as Jews, we weren’t all the same, but each gave something different. Every contribution was valued and so every one of us was valued.

Originally published in the Chanukah/Purim 5784 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.