by Rear Admiral (ret) Paul Becker, Post 100
I recently retired from the Navy after 33 years of service in peace, crisis and combat, serving afloat and ashore around the world. Before sharing my reflections as a Jewish Naval Officer at Tampa’s Temple Schaarai Zedek last month it was important to set the context by informing others of the proud history of Jews who honorably served in uniform and were decorated for valor from our colonial era through conflicts of today. Of particular note were several four-stars, including an Air Force Chief of Staff, a Chief of Naval Operations and the Father of the Nuclear Navy. As a Board Member at the U.S. Naval Academy’s Jewish Chapel, I also placed special attention on its namesake, Commodore Uriah Levy, our nation’s first Jewish Flag Officer.
Commodore’s Levy most famous citation is, “I am an American, a Sailor, a Jew.” I read of his exploits as a teenager growing up in New York and I drew inspiration from his example that someone could be all three. So why do Jews join the military in the first place? There’s a myriad of answers for the approximate 1% of the military that is Jewish, but I joined because I felt I had ‘skin in the game.’ As Jews we expect our nation to contribute generously to those less fortunate. However, when it’s time for our own family to contribute to national security and go into harm’s way, my observations growing up in the Bronx and a middle class suburb of Long Island was that many Jewish families discouraged military participation. In my mind this created a perception to some that Jewish citizens were not the generous givers to society upon which we rightfully pride ourselves. My sensitivity to this played a large part in my decision to join the Navy in 1979, frankly, against some of my family’s wishes. But when it comes to the defense of America and of American-ensured freedom around the world, I believe we Jews, especially descendants like me of East European immigrants who found shelter in this land and had family murdered in the Holocaust, that we owe this country something.
My Jewish education came in handy as an officer. I often reflected upon Maimonedes’ eight degrees of tzedakah or charity and equated them to good officership. We most often read of Maimonides at Passover, but the lesson is eternal. The levels of charity from lowest to highest are 8) giving unwillingly, to 1) giving something that strengthens someone’s hand so they don’t have to receive again. I thought about that in everyday situations from helping a subordinate unwillingly and #1, helping them gladly so that they may help themselves in the long run. The best officers and leaders I served with applied Maimonedes’ first degree of charity, and I strove to do so as well. Also prominent in my officership’s outlook was the guidance of Hillel: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do unto your neighbor … That is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary.” I thought about that every day: treating shipmates as you would want yourself treated. Often serving as Jewish Lay Leader, I frequently used a Talmud citation as a star to steer by, “A Jew, no matter how far he strays from the path, is still a Jew.” It was never for me to tell more junior Jewish personnel what should be their Jewish path or how far they should stray … their Jewish path was their choice. But I made it a point to never stray during the big holidays when junior Jewish personnel turn to a senior Jewish officer for ritual leadership. It was in this way that I sought to educate the next generation of American military personnel who are Jewish to remember where the path is if they need it
Finally, in matters more practical I found in the military it’s important to get along, to be one of the guys. Many of the guys I met in the Navy had never met a Jew. Some weren’t inclined to like me. On those occasions I tried twice as hard to be a regular guy in an attempt to disavow any erroneous stereotypes others had about Jews … joining sports teams, taking on collateral duties, missing a little sleep if it means some extra social events. As a lone Jew in some commands I chose to play a broader role than I might have chosen otherwise, becoming a representative of a religion to which I’m a part, representing Jews even when I thought I wasn’t worthy of representing an entire people. But thanks to lessons learned from Rabbi Chaplains along the way it dawned on me I was worthy, and that realization, allowed me to be better as an American, a Sailor, a Jew.
Volume 72. Number 1. Spring 2018