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Capt. Daniel Kaplan and Australian Defence Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Rosenfeld at the 21st Combat Support Hospital in Iraq, 11 May 2017

By Marla Cohen, JCC Association

NEW YORK CITY – To better understand the needs of Jews in the United States military, Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) Jewish Chaplains Council is surveying those who serve or have served our country in uniform.

The survey, which is being conducted in conjunction with other endorsers of Jewish chaplains, Aleph and Pirchei Shoshanim, is the first of its extent and kind, according to Rabbi Irving Elson, director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council.

Rabbi Irving Elson

“This will give us a better understanding of what exactly Jews who serve want from a Jewish perspective, and allow us to serve them better,” said Elson, who formerly served in the U.S. Navy.  “That all the endorsers of Jewish chaplains are behind this effort and support it, indicates a broad need, one that we hope this survey will fill with the support of the military branches.”

The survey takes about 5-10 minutes to fill out and is anonymous. In addition to asking such basics as gender, age, current military status, and duty station, JWB drills deeper, asking for how survey participants identify as Jews, whether or not they belong to a synagogue or JCC, whether there are Jewish educational opportunities available for them or their children, and if they would use them, and what kind of services are available to them wherever they are stationed.

“Hearing directly from the Jewish men and women who serve in our military and who need our services will help us tailor JWB’s work to meet them,” Elson said.

JWB is not alone in anticipating how beneficial the survey results will be. In addition to the other endorsers, the different military branches will benefit and learn from the findings.

“I am so appreciative of JWB ‘leaning forward’ with this survey and working with us in serving our Jewish airmen,” said Maj. Gen. Steven A. Schack, Chief of Chaplains in the U.S. Air Force.

To take the survey, visit http://jcca.org/what-we-do/jwb/survey/.

Volume 72. Number 3. Fall 2018

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

 

The Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely, went on Israeli news over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend claiming that American Jews are a “people that never send their kids to fight for their country.  Most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, going to Iraq”.  As much as the Israelis resent American Jews meddling into their business, we Americans have the same reservations.

Hotovely’s comments were in relation to the growing American-Israeli divide, but there is something that she missed – it is easy to be a Jew in Israel, but in America, it takes work.  Israeli identity is ingrained in Jewish identity, and Judaism is a part of the culture.  Jewish Americans, on the other hand, have to make the decision of whether or not to be Jewish, and how their Judaism might affect their acceptance into the mainstream American culture.

I was not surprised to see that Lee Rogers, a columnist from the Neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, use Hotovely’s words against American Jews, “The last thing the Jews want are the American people waking up to the fact that they’re fighting wars for them even though few Jews serve themselves.”  Now, I expect a rabid anti-Semite to use anti-Semitic tropes against American Jews, but when the comments originate from a fellow Jew – albeit an Israeli Jew – that especially hurts.

Which gets to my next point – the idea of Jews not serving in proportion to their population is an old anti-Semitic lie that reached its heyday in Nazi Germany.  In fact, we again saw it used this year in Charlottesville when we saw Neo-Nazis chanting, “Blood and Soil” – which refers to the idea that only white Americans have spilled blood for this country.

We know that American Jews have fought and died for our country as far back as Asser Levy and his comrades in the New Amsterdam colony.  Since then, Jews have fought for America in every major war, and in World War II, Jews served disproportionately more than the rest of the population.  Thousands of medals have been awarded to American Jews, and to date, 27 American Jews have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

American Jews had raised their hands to enlist at a same rate as other Americans.  Thousands have fought in the 16 year long war which began with the 9/11 attacks, and currently, there are 15,000 American Jews serving on active duty and an additional 5,000 serving in the Guard and the Reserves.  In any case, I dare Hotovely to tell the parents of the 56 fallen Iraq and Afghanistan Jewish American heroes that American Jews don’t serve.  These Jewish Gold Star Families have made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting America and American values.

Here at JWV, we invite Deputy Foreign Minister to come meet with representatives of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. and visit the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C. so that she can learn more about Jewish American Military History.  We hope she takes us up on our offer.