During my husband Scott's seven-month deployment on an aircraft carrier last year, much of our life seemed upside-down. Our two young children were confused, and at times distraught, over their father's absence; my role as the "Skipper's wife" (my husband is a Navy pilot and commanding officer of his squadron) was a far cry from what I had imagined myself doing with my life; and we were living in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, far from our extended family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
But perhaps the most unexpected result of the deployment was that while I struggled to find Jewish resources and ways to celebrate Jewish holidays in our corner of Washington state, my husband discovered a vibrant, active and welcoming Jewish community on his aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
In-between almost daily six-to-eight-hour flights over Iraq, Scott participated in far more Sabbath and holiday events on the USS Truman than I did back at home. He served with Capt. Herm Shelanski, a Philadelphia native who took an active role in facilitating Jewish holiday celebrations and events for Jewish service members on the boat.
During Scott's time on the Truman, the carrier dedicated a Torah scroll rescued from a Lithuanian synagogue during the Holocaust, and sailors celebrated Israel Independence Day with Israeli government officials who flew out to the vessel. Gradually, services in the Truman's small chapel would become a comfort for my husband — a spiritual respite from battle — and he brought that feeling home with him after his return.
Growing up in a nonmilitary family, I never knew any service members, and before I married into the military, I had many stereotypes about members of the Armed Forces and their families. I thought that Jews didn't serve in the military, period, and when I met my Jewish husband, I couldn't imagine why he had chosen a naval career.
Facts and Figures
Figures on Jews in the Armed Forces are hard to come by because the military does not routinely report statistics on service members' religious practices. According to rough estimates from the Department of Defense, there are currently 4,000 Jews in all of the services combined. A recent Military Times poll found that Jews comprise about 1 percent of active-duty military members, and just more than 2 percent of the National Guard and Reserves.
This hasn't always been the case. Jewish service members have served the nation since the Revolutionary period, and many have been recognized for their achievements and heroism.
For example, Philadelphia native Uriah P. Levy (1792-1862), the first Jewish Commodore of the U.S. Navy, abolished the tradition of corporal punishment in the military, and later saved Thomas Jefferson's Monticello from destruction.
During World War II, some 550,000 Jewish military members served, at rates consistent with their 3.5 percent of the total population. The number of Jewish chaplains then was 311, compared to 20 today on active duty, with nearly 40 more serving through the Reserves or National Guard.
For years, Scott was one of the some 400,000 service members who list no religion at all. He, like many Jews, was concerned about capture in an unfriendly country, where his dog tags would guarantee certain death; some worry about anti-Semitism; some simply prefer privacy.
But that's no longer the case. During this tour, despite our ups and downs, we gained clarity on our priorities, focusing our efforts on creating a Jewish community for service members and their families. As the Jewish lay leaders for our base, Scott and I had the privilege of getting to know a dozen or so families with whom we celebrated holidays and other occasions.
But in the manner of military families everywhere, we're moving on. Scott leaves in June for two months of training at bases across America, followed by 12 months in Baghdad.
The children and I are moving back to the Washington, D.C., area to be close to our extended family.
We're trying to prepare for another upside-down year, but are confident that the Jewish military chaplains and lay leaders overseas will help assure that spiritually, everything will remain right-side-up.
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War, from which this piece was adapted.