Three Great Stories Featuring Military Jews

Over the past couple weeks there have been some excellent feature stories that focus on Jews serving in the military.

The first, from Time Magazine, called One Private, Two Armies is about Private Daniel Houten, who is currently in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. What makes his story interesting is that Houten just finished an 18-month tour with the IDF. This drives the main focus of the article, where the theme is comparing and contrasting life in the IDF and the U.S. Army. It’s a pretty light-hearted article with some humor mixed in (what else would you expect from an Israeli soldier?)

Like most 20-year old soldiers, Houten is familiar with the creature comforts valued by every grunt since Hannibal. Although there are exceptions, he likes the variety of the U.S. Army’s Meals-Ready-to-Eat. “In general, they’re pretty good,” he says. “In Israel, they have Manot Krav — a cardboard box, you get one per squad — and it’s a bunch of cans of tuna, a can of corn, they used to have something Loof, which is kind of like kosher Spam but now its all tuna – and you get a loaf of bread, a couple of vegetables and that’s it. You get really tired of tuna – really, really tired of tuna.” He recalls his assignments at forward posts: “In general, it was tuna and bread, tuna and bread.”

Houten laughs when asked which army has the cooler uniform. “All right – define cooler.” When told coolness is in the eyes of the wearer, he thinks for a moment. “The American uniform is kind of a little bit cooler – I’m not going to lie – it’s sort of a better material” he says. And the Israeli uniforms don’t sport a camouflage pattern, which means another layer is needed to blend in. “So if you’re operating in the desert, you need to have a second camo suit over that,” Houten says. “Which I think, personally, is a little bit ridiculous.”

Go check out the full article, it’s well worth the read.

The next two articles come from the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. The making of a “Military Jew” is about LT Jonathan Heesch, and his unusual path (is there a usual one?)  from an unaffiliated enlisted Marine to a frum Coast Guard Lieutenant. A man after my own heart, he seized the opportunity to serve as a layleader which led him to rediscover his Judaism and now wears his Judaism proudly on his sleeve (or more appropriately on the back of his head).

The Shabbat service was led by a master gunnery sergeant; the Heesches doubled the size of the congregation. It was an informal affair: the group recited the Shema, discussed the Torah portion, and had refreshments. “When we left, I felt better about things and couldn’t explain why,” Heesch says. “We started going on a weekly basis.”

Six months later, Heesch became the congregation’s lay leader when the gunnery sergeant rotated out of Okinawa. Heesch was reluctant to take the position – “I could barely read Hebrew and I didn’t remember anything from Sunday school,” he says. “Then he told me that I had to wear a yarmulke, that I had to stick out for the benefit of other Jewish service-people. I saw that yarmulkes came in neat designs, so I said okay.” (Marine Corps regulations allow a black or “hair-colored” kippah.)
“The group was very Reform,” he says. “Jews in the military are usually laid back because of military requirements. Jews came out of the woodwork. I got emails and phone calls; people were asking me what to do for a bris. Thank God for the Internet, where I found Chabad and Aish.” The Jewish Welfare Board supplied the group with materials and rabbis for the holidays.

The other feature from the Jewish Ledger, “What’s a nice Jewish boy…?”, is actually promoting a talk by LTC David Michael Kaplan (USA, Ret.) that will be held Feb 26th at Temple Sinai in Stamford, CT. Kaplan was interviewed and shares some great stories about his experiences as a Jew in the Army.

One of the highlights of my early military career was interacting with Jews from all over the world. Attending services with Vietnamese Jews of French extraction and dancing around the Torah at Simchat Torah services with aging Holocaust survivors in Germany were true bonding experiences. I found myself in the position of wanting to take a leadership role while we lived in Germany and therefore served as a Jewish lay leader. I sought out as many Jewish soldiers as I could find and organized local Shabbat services, High Holiday services, and family social gatherings, and worked on community-building.

If you are in the Stamford area, I’d highly recommend catching the event. If not, take a look at the interview over at the Jewish Ledger – it’s a good read.