Here is an article by Neil Block, Captain, US Navy, Retired, and Past President, Temple Israel, Columbus, Georgia. He wrote this article a couple of years ago and has graciously agreed for it to be published on this site.
The photo is Jewish worship services at the Regimental Chapel, Sand Hill, Fort Benning.
I have just returned to my home in the hinterlands of rural Georgia from the big city of Washington, DC and have been contemplating a suddenly clear reality as a result of that trip—my epiphany.
I had been to Washington via Annapolis and my 50th class reunion of graduation from the US Naval Academy to participate on behalf of our temple in receiving an award bestowed on it by the Religious Action Center of the Reform Jewish movement.
Temple Israel was being recognized for a program which was initiated and pursued for over 10 years for and on behalf of our Jewish military at nearby Fort Benning, the home of the US Army Infantry.
That program, essentially a Jewish community-wide undertaking by both the local area two synagogues and funded by the local area Federation, was merely pro-actively reaching out and embracing the Jewish troops of the Infantry Center and creating a Jewish home/family nucleus for them on post and in the community during their basic training and/or term of duty assignment, and including them and other non-basic training cadre in our Jewish community life.
In that undertaking, the local community brought a Jewish nucleus of worship, study, fellowship and outreach to the many soldiers of the Infantry Basic Training Commands and other structural units which, when the program was initiated, had no uniformed Jewish chaplain or identifiable Jewish leadership for the hundreds of Jewish men and women transitioning into the army and enduring the enormous cultural life-changing experience of transformation from civilians into warriors and/or the unit cadre or assigned personnel.
Fort Benning has the largest agglomeration of Jewish personnel anywhere in entire military, albeit on a rotating basis through recurring periodic Basic Training sessions. The basic trainees are rigidly regimented and live in a tightly controlled environment of intense training. The mental and physical stress and strain is enormous. The one and only opportunity for any breather, though, is during the scheduled hour of Sunday morning worship set aside for all faith groups.
While the Christian denominations were, and are, relatively reasonably served by military chaplains, the Jewish troops (and other &lddquo;minor faith” groups) not so much. Recognizing this verity at Fort Benning, several members of our community leaped into the breach and created and sustained a nucleus of Jewish-keit in the vacuum. So, we got an award for doing a mitzvah for ourselves.
In the entire US Army there are only eight or nine active duty Jewish chaplains. In all the services there are perhaps a couple of dozen. The few can’t be everywhere — particularly when we have troops deployed in harm’s way.
And, being a Jew in the military, whether in basic training or as part of any post-basic training structured unit, is quite often very lonely and isolating from a Jewish point of view. Finding a worship service in many places is often difficult, and sometimes not as embracing and accommodating as one would like or hope. Participating in High Holiday worship or a Passover Seder takes special effort and accommodation when it even can be realized.
Where should our Jewish military turn? To whom or to what should they look to be able to sustain, maintain, discover, embrace, and cultivate their Jewish-ness? And, if it is hard for the individual Jewish trooper, what about his or her Jewish kids and family?
Okay, and now to my epiphany:
While listening to the presentations of some of the other Fain Award winners, I was struck by the fact that most of those programs seemed to me to be akin to building bridges over potholes. They were indeed worthwhile and had some modicum of social impact.
But, it seemed to me, that they all merely leaped over equally crucial social issues much closer to home. Certainly the very fact of the Jewish military being overlooked and underserved is one of those social issues.
- Why shouldn’t every Jewish organization contact the local military establishment in their vicinity and seek out Jewish members and offer them a warm welcome to their community — even if only for the short duration of most military assignments?
- Why shouldn’t the children of Jewish military personnel — almost always alone and isolated &mdsh; be afforded a Jewish education in a religious school of some nearby Jewish community?
- What about Jewish summer camp for these kids?
- Why shouldn’t the children of our serving Jewish military have the same opportunities as do our civilian kids to further their Jewish cultural experience and understanding?
If you want to know a secret: the military makes stronger and more dedicated adult Jews when afforded the opportunity to come out of their isolation than does any other contemporary Jewish dynamic such as college organizations. Facing one’s mortality as part of his or her job makes for a compelling spiritual component of one’s life.
I make that statement from very personal experience, bolstered by historical substantiation. When we Jews have the support of the greater Jewish world, we flourish. When we are alone in a cultural vacuum, not so much.
A recent biography of the father of our modern Marine Corps identifies General Victor Krulak, for example, as a Jew who had to survive in the service by hiding his being a Jew. My wife had a cousin who entered the US Naval Academy in the early 1900’s as an Orthodox Jew and came out as a Lutheran.
But that was back in the century when we were an anomaly, pariahs to much of the organized Christian world. Now we have acceptance and respect but still have too many gaps in the incorporation of our Jewish military into the greater Jewish world.
My brother-in-law, a retired army colonel with long service, and I were discussing this troubling reality recently. In all our many years of collective service neither of us ever experienced any Jewish community outreach to us as we did our duty in many varied geographic areas of our great US of A. Oddly enough, it was more available overseas.
While we may have had the fortitude on our own to sometimes direct ourselves to the local Jewish community, we were never really embraced or warmly welcomed or incorporated by the community. Sometimes, we were even coldly dismissed and inhospitably treated.
And, there are those military personnel that just do not have the level of experience or maturity or comfort to insert themselves, even temporarily, in local communities as we sometimes did. So it is incumbent on us, those on the outside, to be the inviters and facilitators.
How about a sharpened focus a little closer to home for some of our social outreach? What about back-filling some of the potholes over which we are building bridges?
How about each and every congregation and/or Jewish entity near or nearby a military facility reach out to the few Jewish personnel that might be stationed there and invite and welcome them into whatever Jewish community there might be in the area?
Here in the Columbus, Georgia, area we offer our Jewish military free, or significantly reduced, membership rates in our synagogues. We actively include them in our community events — worship, ceremonies, celebrations. We participate and assist in their mitzvahs — weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, brit milahs.
Can’t we all do that?
It doesn’t take much effort at all to create the same dynamic as that which won Temple Israel — a congregation of only 130 or so families — a very coveted national award.
Such embrace means so much more than can be imagined for our Jewish military. And it makes for dedicated and determined continuity in our Jewish cultural dynamic.
Let’s all get on board and extend this mitzvah across the fruited plain.
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