There are certain questions we get asked a lot on Jews in the military. Here is a collection of the most common with our best attempt at some answers. Click on any of the questions below to view the response.
That’s a difficult one to answer due to a few reasons:
- There is no single resource that tracks numbers of troops of various religions.
- Many Jews do not list “Jewish” as their religion to avoid being singled out.
- Some Jews list “No Preference” in order to hide their religion in case of capture by the enemy in order to minimize “special” treatment.
With that said, there are several estimates floating around based on surveys and general experience. The current estimates vary anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 active duty service members in all branches out of a total force of approximately 1.5 million. That equates to 0.2 to 0.7%. Most of that variance can be explained by the 3 reasons above.
This is a significantly lower representation than our general presence in the United States, which is roughly 2% of the population. This was not always the case though. During WWII, Jews served in numbers significantly higher than our representation in the general population. For more insight into why this is, see this story here (and be sure to browse through the comments).
I’m thinking of joining the military, but I keep kosher, observe Shabbat, etc. Will I be able to observe during boot camp? What about afterwards?
There are two distinct periods of military life: before graduation from basic training (or officer candidate school), and after. As a recruit or candidate you have very little say over what happens to you on a daily basis. You are told when to wake, when to eat, when to work, and when to go to the bathroom. I think it is fair to say that remaining completely observant is impossible. However, if you are willing to compromise for that initial time period, you can go back to far more strict observance when you are done. Some issues are more manageable than others. Here are the big ones:
- Shabbat: Saturday is a work day in boot camp. There is little getting around this and you will likely have to break this throughout. With some ingenuity, you might be able to minimize certain specifics (like writing), but you will most certainly have to carry and perform other means of work (like shooting a rifle). On the bright side, you will not have to cook or worry about switching on many light switches.
- Kashrut: Some people have had limited success obtaining kosher rations by directly contacting the chaplain at their base of basic training. This is not common though, and you will most likely have to eat some non-kosher food. Again, this can be mitigated to a great extent. I served with a frum Marine who kept 100% vegetarian (with tuna when available) during training. You will never be forced to eat specifically treif food, but don’t expect to find a hechsher on anything either.
- Davening: Evening prayer is a given in most cases and if you can wake up before reveille, you can probably knock out a quick shacharit service. There is not a lot of free time otherwise, but if you carry a small siddur you can probably make it happen when there is a minor break.
With all of that said, once you finish with initial training, you will be able to shop for your own food and cook it in the barracks. You will have most weekends off (when not deployed), so Shabbat observance should be mostly a non-issue. Most jobs in the military have standard hours and you will have access to most things you enjoy in civillian life. There are always exceptions, and deployments complicate things, but if you are willing to make the effort few people will stand in your way. Sometimes you will have to pay out of pocket for food, and you might have to work a little harder than your peers, but if you are determined to observe you can make it happen.
There is a plethora of support out there for Jewish service members, including free ritual items, kosher rations, Passover rations, and more. Often times you will have to be the one to initiate the request, but I’ve always found the religious organizations more than willing to accomodate Jewish needs.
I’m doing a Bar/Bat Mitzvah (or Tzedakah) project and want to send items to deployed Jewish troops. Can you help me out?
Yes. The Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) has a program specifically designed to do just that. This program is not directly associated with Jews in Green, so visit their website for more information.
Connecting with our Jewish troops through JWB Jewish Chaplains Council is a perfect mitzvah project for your bar or bat mitzvah! As you celebrate this important life passage together with your family, friends and community, you can help raise funds that bring the Jewish community to Jewish men and women serving our country. The funds you raise can be earmarked for:
Holiday packages for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover and Shavuot that contain kosher foods, inspirational literature and Jewish ritual items for deployed military personnel: $18 per package per holiday
Essential-needs packages that include phone cards to call home, toiletries, anti-microbial socks and hand warmers: $36 per package
Special packages for Shabbat at the most remote military facilities, which include kosher wine, challah, Shabbat candles and kosher snacks: $18 per package to serve five individuals
To participate in the JWB Bar and Bat Mitzvah Project for our Jewish Troops, or for more information, please contact Ziva Davidovich by email firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 212.786.5099.
Today’s military has little room or tolerance for discrimination and bigotry. While there have certainly been low points in our military’s history with regards to anti-Semitism, incidents are extremely rare now and when they do occur they are almost always dealt with swiftly and severely. It is probably fair to say that incidents are more rare in the military than out of the military.
The majority of problems that come up now are simply due to ignorance on the part of people who have had little or no contact with Jews and have zero understanding of our culture and tradition. Sometimes this comes across as anti-Semitism, like when your platoon sergeant doesn’t understand why you should have Yom Kippur off from work, but with some tactful explanation most of these issues are resolved quickly. If that doesn’t work, a call (or visit) to your chaplain (of any faith) will fix it in no time. Blatant anti-Semitic or racist remarks by anyone, especially a leader, is often a career-ending mistake and there are specific channels for dealing with those kind of people in your chain of command.
So, while I can’t say that there are no anti-Semites in the military, I feel confident saying that there are no “openly” anti-Semitic personnel. We have all had our run-ins with the “ignorant” type, but I imagine so has any Jew who lives outside of a dominantly Jewish community. Bottom line: it’s not an issue that should keep anyone from joining. If anything, the greater representation we have, the less ignorant people will be of our culture.
Many military members homeschool their children for their secular education (for a number of reasons), and do an excellent job of it. There is no reason this wouldn’t work well for your children’s Jewish education as well. If it is that important to you (and it should be!) then you should be willing to invest the time and effort to serve as an educator. There are a number of curricula available online and as of recently, there is an excellent online school run by Chabad (it’s how those Chabad emissaries around the world educate their children in far off locations), that is now available to military families. See this post for more info.
Something to remember too, is that you won’t spend your entire career at “Fort Podunk”. We all have to suck-up a bad duty station from time to time, but as you progress you’ll have a say in where you are stationed and with proper research you can find a location with quality religious (and secular) education for your family.