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Davening for Doughnuts

Most soldiers in Basic Training attend services just for the snacks. The lemonade was good, but it was the Torah that kept me coming back.

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I never attended services in the civilian world. But all that changed when I joined the Army.

It didn’t start as a religious awakening. During Basic Training, I thought that going to services would be a good opportunity to get away from the drill sergeants for a while, and maybe I’d even get a nap out of it. Maybe not the purest of intentions, but priorities are different in Basic.

All religious services at Fort Benning, in Columbus, Ga., are held on Sundays. That first Sunday, there were four of us, out of a company of 220, who said we would like to attend Jewish services. I walked into the Regimental Chapel, where I dutifully picked up a Siddur and took a seat in a pew toward the back. I was surprised by how many people were there—maybe 50, drawn from all the companies on base—and I was fairly certain the majority weren’t actually Jewish. They all looked to me like hardened combat veterans, even though they’d probably only been in a few weeks longer than I had, and never left Fort Benning. Some of them, including the non-Jews, wore ACU yarmulkes, which I’d later learn were very popular and in high demand. One soldier was even wearing a tallit.

There was nothing particularly memorable about the service itself. But the enthusiastic chaplain, a major, clearly enjoyed having us there, even the ones who were nodding off. We read a prayer for the men and women serving in the armed forces. There was some call and response, in English and in Hebrew, and most people seemed like they’d done this before. Not me.

The chaplain read to us the weekly Torah portion and then talked about how it related to us, as Basic Trainees who had signed up for the military in a time of war. Raised by my nonobservant Jewish mother, I had never read the Torah, gotten bar mitzvahed, or given any thought as to what it might mean to actually be Jewish. If someone asked, I would say I was Jewish, but there was no real meaning behind it.

At that Sunday service, for the first time, I started to understand. The chaplain’s words lifted my spirits. I remembered why I had joined in the first place, to the shock of my family and friends. My mother is slightly to the left of Keith Olbermann, and no one in my social circle was in the military. I’d never doubted my decision, but right then, after just four days in the Army, I needed that reassurance that this was a higher calling.

After the service we filed into the parking lot, where some kind, older veterans had set up picnic tables with lemonade and doughnuts. Now I understood why the service was so popular, even with non-Jews who could have opted to go to one of the other services offered at the same time: Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Buddhist. Meals at Basic Training consist of a couple panicked moments of shoveling as much food as possible, in any combination, into your mouth before a drill sergeant tells you that you’re done. Maybe it was because I actually had time to chew before swallowing, but the doughnut I had that day was the best I’d ever had.

Before boarding the bus that would take me back to my barracks, I worked up the courage to approach the chaplain and asked if he had a copy of the Torah I could borrow. Your only two reading options at Basic are military books or religious books, and I was looking to expand my choices. The chaplain gave me a small book of the Torah that fit perfectly into my ACU’s pocket, gave me some general words of encouragement, and sent me on my way.

Whenever I got the chance, I’d read Torah. If I wasn’t writing a letter home or cleaning my weapon or doing pushups, I was lying on my bunk reading Torah. I wrote home about my new studies, and a friend was kind enough to print articles from Tablet and My Jewish Learning and mail them to me. These articles made me stronger. Not just spiritually, as I learned about my faith, but physically: My platoon had a policy that for every letter you received in the mail, you owed the drill sergeants 10 pushups. Between articles about Judaism and the letters my girlfriend’s third-grade students were sending me, I was knocking out 100 pushups easy, every mail call.

Eventually, word leaked out to the rest of the company about the doughnuts and lemonade, and by the end of Basic, 65 soldiers from my company alone were marching to services on Sunday. At the end of every service, the chaplain would ask if anyone was about to graduate, and those who were would stand up and say where they were headed to next. The chaplain would offer congratulations and a prayer, and those of us still pushing through Basic would dream about when it would be us standing up, saying where our next duty station was.

After more than nine weeks, I finished Basic in July 2010. I still have the Torah the chaplain gave me that first Sunday. I kept it with me through every bit of training I did after Basic: Officer Candidate School, Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course, Ranger School, and finally Airborne School. It’s always there when I need it. It’s seen better days—the cover is battered, some of the pages are dog-eared—but all in all, it’s held up remarkably well through patrols, battle drills, and marches.

Last week, I deployed to Afghanistan, with my Torah safely packed in my assault pack. My Forward Operating Base has Jewish services at 1830 hours, every Friday. I don’t know if they’ll serve lemonade and doughnuts this time, but either way, I’ll be there.

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Steve Stein says:

Great story, man. (And thanks for the link to My Jewish Learning – somehow I’ve never seen that before.)

I can’t wish for you to stay out of harm’s way – that’s not what Airborne is for, I guess. I admire your courage and honor your answering the call to service.

May G-d bless you, protect you and see you safely home.

what a perfect read. proud to know you, my favorite jewish soldier!

Beautiful story. My mother told me years ago how one of the most beautiful things in this world was the way Jews find one another and find strength from one another. I hope that is true for you and that you continue to find strength from Torah.

I think it is neat that in that Muslim country, there are Shabbat services.

Thanks for the article. Enjoyed it!!

Yehuda Riemer says:

Lt. Kohlman shalom,
Your story reminded me of my experience serving in the US Army during WWII (1944-1946). I also started going to services at Fort Lee Va, where I did Basic Training, and continued at Camp Beale, CA. We had services Friday night and afterward Oneg Shabbat with Pastrami Sandwiches etc. Afterwards we sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs. Our Chaplain was Isadore Garsig from Texas, who had returned from overseas. I studied Hebrew under him and at his suggestion gave a talk about what had happed to the Jewish people during the War. I concluded that it was up to us to involve ourselves in Jewish activities to insure the survival of our people. The result is my present address.
Yehuda Riemer
Kibbutz Urim
Israel

Amy Korin says:

Beautiful post, Lt. Kohlman,
Ori shared the article with our family, and I am very happy she did. Your post was beautifully written and shows a very human side of a soldier. While not overly religious myself, I always leave services with important takeaways and it is very comforting to know these resources are available to soldiers. Thank you for serving our country!

Jay A Friedman says:

Lt. Kohlman – I am an American citizen and an Israeli citizen (living in Israel for the past 40 years.)

My children are serving in the Israeli Army – protecting my country. You are serving in the American Army – protecting my country.

You have my respect and my affection – as an American and as a Jew.

Jake,

God bless you and keep you…and all of your me…. safe.

Drew Porter says:

2LT Kohlman:
Thank you so much for contributing. What a wonderful article. I wish you a safe deployment and a quick return. Thank you also for your service to the nation.
As a retired National Guard officer who had the good fortune to serve in a time when I never had to deploy, I admire your commitment and your willingness to risk your life in defense of our nation’s safety and values.

charis keitelman says:

Hey Jake–your step mom shared your article with me–I am your sister Jessie’s friend Rachel’s mom. I love your piece and am sitting here with tears trickling down my cheeks and a smile on my face. I have followed your progress through basic training with keen interest and pride although I am not sure if I have ever met you. I was as shocked as your family when I first heard you enlisted and have actually said many prayers for you along the way both in and out of shul. I will continue to do so and will now think of you with your Torah as I do so. I know you are doing an honorable duty and appreciate your service to your country even as my heart aches for your family knowing how much they miss you and worry for you–but I also know that they have never been prouder of you. Good luck and god bless. Love, Charis Keitelman

Shoshana Kaye says:

What a delightful article to read in such tumultuous times, as exists now in Afghanistan. I pray this soldier as well as ALL THE NATO FORCES ARE SAFE!

Thank you for your service. The headline made me think of why my son went to (optional) services at summer camp (http://njjewishnews.com/tribe/2010/06/08/the-way-to-his-siddur/) but your story made me think of my father.
My dad was a 1st Lieutenant and a Ranger, and he served in Vietnam against his mom’s wishes, earning two bronze stars. He wouldn’t talk about his service to me when I was a kid, and he passed away when I was a teen so I can’t find out about it now.
Stay safe. Thank you again so much for your service to our country, and our people. Stay safe, and come home.

Esther says:

Oh Jake, thank you for this wonderful article and for your service. Please continue with periodic postings to Tablet. Yours is a voice we seldom hear and I’d love to hear more…
Stay safe.

I started to cry during your letter my youngest is in basic right now ,following in his eldest brothers footsteps .I pray for him all the time and hope he is having a good experience in basic training ….Thank you from a mum

Ps please stay safe lt Kohlman

I can totally relate to this soldier and his circumstances, although my son went to basic at Ft. Jackson the first time he served. We, too, are a non religious family, but I am not politically left. Both my son and daughter (Navy, retired) went to services when they could find them. My son kept his Torah with him all through the three deployments to Iraq.

This brought back some fine memories for me. I went through basic at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri in summer 2000. My “battle buddy” (you never did anything alone in basic, you always had someone with you) was from American Samoa and his dad was a minister! We had services every Friday. One Friday, we finished training later than expected, I didn’t think getting to services was an option since we had to eat dinner in the D-FAC (that’s army speak for “dining facility”). To my surprise my Samoan battle buddy called out to me as we were leaving the D-FAC, waving me to run up to him. As it turned out, he took it upon himself to remind our drill sergeant that it was Friday and we had to get to services! One of my fondest memories from the army!

A beautiful and unexpected story. When we recite the prayer to protect our soldiers, I’ll be thinking of you.

Lt. Jake, if you read this, I want to acknowledge you on your growth as a Jew. I so appreciate your kind words and wish you the best. I wish for you peace and know full well,there is one American (and Jewish) who wishes you well. G-d bless you and keep you safe.

Beth Goldman says:

Lt Jake,
Thank you so much for both your service AND your article. My son is a Pfc in the ARNG. When he was at Basic, he went to services every week. It got him through Basic. His FOB was too far away to attend services but the Jewish Chaplains found him on a regular basis! I, too, live to the left of Keith Olbermann. Having a son serve in the US Army is a sobering experience!
May G-d keep you safe and bring you home to your Mom, safe and sound.

Arnold Kragen says:

A most touching piece. It brought a memory of my rather inglorious military career as an enlistee in the US Army Reserve in 1970, typical of college bound Jewish men trying to avoid the draft and going to Vietnam. My basic training was at Ft. Polk, Louisiana and on Saturday I went to chapel as one who was observant plus also as a way to get away from the drill Sargeants. After services we always had lox and bagels. I will never forget the Chaplain Assistant, as we had no Rabbi Chaplain, telling of a story of his meeting with the Colonel one day. The Colonel wanted to know for sure that the Jewish trainees had refreshments after their services. When informed they did, the Colonel commented: “now I know why none of them can pass their physical fitness test.”

Finally, to a comment made by Yehuda Reimer about WWII and Rabbi Garsek. Rabbi Garsek, of blessed memory, was my Rabbi growing up in Ft. Worth, Texas. He was very much a part of my family beginning with the marriage of my parents. He was also a part of my Jewish life cycle events and indeed influenced me in my love of Judaism and Torah which continues to this day. I can definitely see how much of an impact he could have on a young recruit. I thank you Mr. Reimer for bringing back a memory of a most beloved Rabbi and knowing how he made a difference in so many lives.

Finally, to Lt. Kohlman, my prayers and thoughts are with you and other soldiers, of all faiths, that you return safely.

Neil Block says:

As one of the “old vets” that LT Kohlman alludes to in his article, please know that our small Jewish community in Columbus, Georgia takes its support obligations to our army basic trainees seriously and has continued to do so for the past dozen years.

Jake’s experience, as he so articulately has described, is reflective of many, many similar ones which we are proud to participate in.

Neil Block
Captain, US Navy, Retired
Jewish Lay Leader
Fort Benning, GA

Selma Golub says:

God speed Lt. Kohlman.Thank you for your service and committment to our country. Stay well and safe.

michael closter says:

they give out torahs now?

it used to be

“send a salami
to your boy in the army”

I loved reading this article. I work on an Army installation and here being Jewish is like forgetting how to do a pushup during a PT test…there are Jews in the United States Military and they deserve to have such inclusive options at Ft. Benning offered you. I am glad you were so blessed!

sonny says:

Great article by a great guy, warm, humorous,sincere,moving,inspiring and VERY HUMAN.

Daniel Fletcher says:

Jake – are you still required to do 10 push ups for every letter you receive? If so: I’m just curious, what’s your address?

Phil N says:

I was a Viet Nam era veteran. At that time the Reform rabbi’s had decided that Jews in the American armed forces (most of whom were drafted at the time) were not wothy of them. Fortunately the Orthodox rabbis, whose only interest was the welfare of Jewish soldiers, offered to send as many chaplins as were needed. I have not forgotten this slight by the reform rabbis nor the dedicated service of the Orthodox rabbis.

Thank you for your service and for this beautiful essay.

From a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to an American serviceman, Chanukah 5704:

“I would like to use this opportunity to encourage you again – although it is our hope that [at all times even without our prompting,] this idea is always in your thoughts – [to appreciate how] wherever you go, G-d, the L-rd of Hosts, is together with you, watches over you at all times, and considers all of your deeds (as explained at length in the message sent by my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe shlita). Therefore, there is no need to fear. You should be of a strong spirit and have trust and confidence in the victory over the hateful enemy.

“May you increase the strength of your commitment to your faith and endeavor with all your strength to observe the Torah and its mitzvos to your fullest capacity, for G-d is standing over you.

“As it is written (Devarim 23:10-15): When your camp goes out against your enemy, you should protect yourself against any evil matters, because G-d, your L-rd, goes in the midst of your camp to save you, and to subdue your enemies before you. And [so], your camp should be holy.

“With the hope that you will soon return home unharmed after a total victory and with the wish for the complete Redemption for all the Jewish people.”

Mark Gumbiner says:

Jake–as a former Jewish Chaplain’s Assistant (1968-1970) at Fort Lewis Washington you brought back some good memories of my times at the Jewish Chapel at Fort Lewis. It was during the draft, so we got a plethora of Jews coming through the Chapel on their way to Vietnam (McCord Air Force Base was next door) in all shapes and sizes. In addition to the permanent party their was the basic training center they had, so on Sunday we had services for the trainees. I would go into Seattle and pick up a 5 lb brick of lox and bates/cream cheese for both Saturday and Sunday services. The comradery and closeness we all felt in being Jewish in an isolated environment brought us together no matter the degree of “Jewishness.” In addition to being drafted and serving two years, I worked for the Department of Defense bases worldwide and always found the chapel a safe haven for all Jews serving on these bases, no matter how isolated. Good Luck

rosspacker says:

GOD BLESS
Be safe

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Davening for Doughnuts

Most soldiers in Basic Training attend services just for the snacks. The lemonade was good, but it was the Torah that kept me coming back.

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