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Onward, Jewish Soldiers

Like generations of Jewish service members, my husband, a Navy pilot, will spend the High Holidays overseas

Alison Buckholtz
September 16, 2009
Courtesy Alison Buckholtz
Buckholtz and family.Courtesy Alison Buckholtz
Courtesy Alison Buckholtz
Buckholtz and family.Courtesy Alison Buckholtz

When my husband Scott shipped out to Baghdad last month, he left a lot behind; he knew he’d be weighed down with duffel bags full of body armor, combat gear, and new Army uniforms, so he put aside most of what he really wanted to take. (Although he is an active-duty Navy pilot, he’s in Iraq working with a joint services force for 12 months.) Recently, I gathered these items to include in his first care package. During his many past deployments, including one he returned from barely a year ago, I developed an intimate relationship with the postal service, and as I began to transfer his belongings into multiple flat-rate boxes, I sighed. Here we go, I thought, anxious all over again about the year ahead.

After repackaging the new undershirts, old New Yorkers, phone cards, Speed Sticks, DVDs, and extra flight suits, I spotted the siddur. It’s small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. The black leatherette cover is stamped in gold and reads, in Hebrew and English:





I’ve seen the siddur before; it was shipped to Scott during his last tour by the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council, which certifies Jewish chaplains and lay leaders and looks after Jewish servicemembers. The irony of shipping a Hebrew prayerbook to Iraq right before the High Holidays did not escape me. I’ve read several features about Jewish personnel celebrating religious festivals at bases throughout the Middle East since this war began, and there is sometimes a whiff of triumphalism in these tales. It’s almost as if, these accounts suggest, by wrapping tefillin in Kabul, or reading the Torah in Basra, American Jews are reclaiming something that was taken from us. I understand the excitement, and am grateful that Jews in Muslim countries can gather as Jews—this after a long history of treatment as second-class citizens before being stripped of their possessions in 1948 and abruptly expelled from many of these countries.

But for me, sending my husband a siddur was simply sad. It wasn’t a triumph but a tragedy that he was going to be away from me, our six-year-old son, and our four-year-old daughter for more than a year. And yet I was glad he thought to include the siddur, if it brought him solace. It also comforted me to know that several Jewish organizations already had his new mailing address. We’ve marked many Rosh Hashanahs and Yom Kippurs apart (along with countless other holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries), but the Jewish Chaplains Council has sent him everything from dried apples and honey sticks to Hanukkah gelt to chocolate-covered matzoh; the Aleph Institute, a Lubavitch organization that serves Jewish military personnel and prisoners (no kidding), also shipped generous Sabbath and holiday packages.

After my memoir about being a military wife was published last spring, I received dozens of emails from individuals asking how they can send even more holiday cards and packages to Jewish troops. Our story was warmly received, especially by those whose relatives served the nation in earlier wars. We seemed to confirm their hope that a younger generation of Jews continues to contribute to the country that made our success (and successful assimilation) possible.

Exact numbers on Jews in the military are hard to come by, because the military does not routinely report statistics on service members’ religious practices, and discrepancies exist among the organizations that do keep track. According to rough Defense Department estimates, there are currently 4,000 Jews in all of the services combined. A recent Military Times poll found that Jews comprise about one percent of active-duty military members, and just over two percent of the National Guard and Reserves. The director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, Rabbi Harold L. Robinson, a retired Navy Admiral, points out that these figures don’t add up. (He believes it is likely that Jews under-report to DoD authorities and that many see Judaism as an ethnic identity rather than a religious identity.)

By contrast, during World War II, when the draft was in place, self-identified Jewish military members served at rates consistent with their ratio to the total population—around 3.5 percent of the total Armed Forces during that conflict, with numbers reaching 550,000. Institutional support was also much higher: 311 Jewish chaplains served on active duty during World War II. (“I enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor,” wrote Rabbi Judah Nadich, the first Jewish chaplain to serve in the European theater. “At that time, I was a rabbi in Chicago, and I thought, if a rabbi should not be in the war, then who should?” ) Today, only 20 Jewish chaplains have answered the call to active duty, and almost 40 more serve through the Reserves or National Guard. This is of grave concern to the Jewish chaplains corps, and only partly because fewer chaplains means that the spiritual needs of fewer Jews can be served. Just as worrisome is the idea that in the future there may not be high-enough ranking Jewish chaplains who can suggest military policies that take into account the sensitivities of Jewish personnel.

Thinking about Jews in the American military reminded me of another siddur, which I unpacked earlier this summer following our cross-country move. It is bound in brown leather, and states, in black block letters (no Hebrew):






Its copyright—Jewish Publication Society, 1917—tells only part of the story of its origin. We’re not sure how it came into our family, though Scott and I both suspect it may have belonged to a great uncle who served in World War II. It omits much that the newer edition of the siddur incorporates, but what it includes is far more telling. The current edition, for example, has the standard personal prayers, some of which are relevant to the military. There’s the the “Prayer for Moral Strength,” “Prayer on Starting a Journey,” “Memorial Prayer for Servicemen,” and “Prayer for Our Country,” along with extensive services, blessings, psalms, and hymns. The older siddur, however, includes “Confession on a Death Bed,” “Memorial Prayer for Those Fallen in Battle,” and the entire burial service, as well as the songs “America,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “Hail! Columbia.” It’s no less Jewish, but far more overtly American. Perhaps Jewish servicemembers in those days felt they had to prove their patriotism, or perhaps these texts simply helped an immigrant population learn unfamiliar but important national anthems, which more seasoned Americans memorized in school. In any case, looking at the newer siddur after perusing the old one suggests a lessening in intensity of the expression of Jews’ Americanness. It also points to a greater comfort level in a hyphenated identity.

I decided to make a nest for both siddurs in the package I was preparing for Scott. I smoothed out a section of his flight suit, lay the books on top, and prepared to tape the box shut. Then I noticed a tiny booklet underneath a pile of his papers. The Aleph Institute’s contribution to the canon of Jewish-military literature is the smallest of all, physically—a 2-inch-by-3-inch stapled, camouflage pamphlet called “Courage & Safety Through Faith and Trust in G-d: A Message to the Jewish Serviceman.” According to the introduction, it’s based on a talk with Rabbi Joseph I. Shneerson, who was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe and died in 1950. (The pamphlet was originally published during World War II, and reissued after September 11.) I placed it next to the siddurim, and covered all three with the sleeves of Scott’s flight suit, as if in an embrace. But something nagged at me. I picked up the camouflage booklet again, and reread the section entitled “Faith—The Basis of Confidence.” It begins:

The degree of hope and confidence possessed by a Jew depends on the strength of his faith. The very faithful Jew is always full of hope, and consequently he is calm and courageous under the most trying circumstances.

Recently a reporter interviewing me about Standing By, my memoir, asked, toward the end of our conversation, if my faith helped me overcome the formidable challenges of my husband’s last deployment.

“You mean faith in God?” I asked, surprised. I write about and reflect upon religion quite a bit, especially the idea of faith in a time of war. These ideas are even more relevant now that I’m preparing to read the ominous words of the U’Netaneh Tokef, the High Holiday prayer asserting that God will decree who will live and who will die. Strangely, her question had never crossed my mind.

“Of course,” she answered.

“I believe in God,” I said, carefully, not wanting to lie or sound arrogant. “But I have faith in the training the military has given my husband and his squadron, and it gives me the confidence to know that they can handle any challenge.”

She was quiet. I was quiet. It was, obviously, the wrong answer. Then again, I’m neither calm nor courageous under these trying circumstances and maybe that explains why.

Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War.