Service in the United States Army is anything but easy, and being a Jew in the military only complicates matters further.
One of only a handful of Jews in the army, I was barraged with questions about Judaism, most of which I lacked the knowledge to answer adequately. Upon completing my service, some of which I spent in Iraq, I headed back to the Middle East to learn Hebrew at the Masa Israel Journey-accredited Ulpan Akiva program, hoping to gain the necessary skills to learn more about my religion. While in Israel, I also took part in Masa Israel’s Building Future Leaders seminar series, and crafted an outreach program for other Jewish soldiers in the U.S. Army.
Raised in Northern California, I attended synagogue on the high holidays and the occasional Friday night. Though I went to Hebrew School until I was 13, had my Bat Mitzvah, and traveled to Israel with Birthright after graduating from Hofstra, I definitely did not feel qualified to educate others about the nuances of Judaism. The questions that came from fellow soldiers, most of whom had never met a Jew, were endless and diverse: How does Judaism differ from Christianity? Why do Jews believe that Jesus is not the Messiah? How could I possibly not know the source for the parting of the Read Sea?
Unable to answer these questions, I became insecure about my Jewish identity. How could I call myself a Jew and not be able to explain things that appeared so simple to others? Why couldn’t I quote biblical verses, like all my “good” Christian peers? Then I realized the answer—the synagogue service, the prayers, and Jewish liturgy are all conducted in Hebrew, which I could read, but not understand. While based in Colorado, I started taking Hebrew lessons with an Israeli who lived in the area. But soon, I was deployed to Iraq.
There, I was fortunate to have a commander who allowed me to go on “missions” for the high holidays. At these army base services in Iraq, I finally found my Jewish military family—a mixture of Officers, Reservists, and civilians from all denominations. During one Yom Kippur, the army flew in a Reservist Orthodox Rabbi, whose passion towards Judaism inspired me to expand my knowledge base and become that “subject matter expert” (SME) that my fellow soldiers needed me to be.
After four years of service, I was released from the army and went to Israel to study Hebrew and surround myself with other Jews. Masa Israel’s Ulpan Akiva program in Netanya naturally wove Jewish learning into Hebrew lessons and my knowledge quickly grew. With an abundance of vacation days, corresponding to the surplus of Jewish holidays, I found myself learning both inside and outside of the classroom as I celebrated with Jewish peers from all over the world.
In Masa Israel’s Building Future Leaders (BFL) program, I had the opportunity to outline a project, which facilitates communication between military Jews and other Jews in the areas surrounding their bases. Because most military bases are in secluded areas, where Jewish populations are often miniscule, it is difficult to forge these connections alone. With BFL, I gained the skills to get my project off the ground—through learning fundraising techniques and networking.
Upon my return to Colorado Springs, I became involved in the Jewish community, where I volunteer weekly in the local synagogue and attend services and Shabbat dinners. For the first time in my four years of living in Colorado, I have a group of Jewish friends with whom I celebrate the holidays.
When my work takes me to Herndon, Virginia, where I recently accepted the position of senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, I look forward to becoming part of the active Jewish community. In a few years, I plan on getting my MBA in Business Management with a MS in Jewish Studies.
Ten years ago, I would never have imagined that Judaism would become such an important part of my life. But as a soldier based overseas, fighting a war that no one agrees with and seeing the mental melt down of so many peers, I found haven in a small Jewish community. Surrounded by Jews who would never have come together if not for extraordinary circumstances, my thirst for Jewish knowledge and involvement just grew.