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Soldier in Afghanistan: 'Definitely Not the Normal Career Choice'
On Yom Kippur, for the first time in his life, work kept Avi Behar from going to shul.
Instead, the 23-year-old lieutenant from Cherry Hill, N.J., commanded a convoy mission in western Afghanistan.
In lieu of services, he wore a camouflage kipah and paused during breaks to read from a matching, army-issued prayerbook, he said. It was nothing like home, Behar recounted in a phone interview from a military base in Afghanistan, but it was a small sacrifice to be able to start the new year serving his country overseas.
Behar acknowledged that the military is "definitely not the normal career choice" for most Jewish young adults. The Jewish Welfare Board's Jewish Chaplains Council estimates that up to 14,000 of the 1.4 million active military are Jewish, or less than 1 percent.
For Behar, the Army is a family tradition. His great-grandfather served in World War I; his grandfather in World War II.
"I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself," he said.
He developed this patriotism despite spending much of his childhood outside the United States. At age 8, his family made aliyah. In Modi'in, he learned Hebrew, and joined the national ambulance and blood-bank service. But before he could think too seriously about joining the Israeli army, the family returned to the states.
Back home, his mother, Naomi Behar-Perez, said Behar badgered her until she allowed him to get certified as a volunteer EMT. At 15, he was the youngest one in the course, she said.
He graduated from Cherry Hill East High School with academic honors and immediately signed up for ROTC at the University of Delaware.
He often talked about wanting to be a role model because "everyone does what he wants to do for his own sake and not for the country," said his stepfather, Michael Perez.
While majoring in criminal justice, Behar also kept up his Jewish studies by taking a noncredit course taught by Chabad Rabbi Eliezer Sneiderman. Later, he worked as Sneiderman's teaching assistant and frequently joined fraternity brothers for Shabbat dinners at Chabad, sometimes showing up in his fatigues.
"He has a commitment and a dedication that not a lot of people have," said Sneiderman.
Inspired by one of his professors, Behar completed a minor in African-American history. He was probably the only white Jewish kid in the class, his mother said, laughing.
"It really changed him," she said. "It opened him up. He has no prejudice at all."
After graduating in 2009, Behar went right to work for the Army. Though he trained all over the country, he came home for the major holidays.
Last year, he couldn't make it for Passover, so he attended the seder via web cam, a technological feat his grandparents found particularly thrilling.
In Afghanistan, where he was deployed in August, he did not have that luxury.
There was, however, a small chapel at Camp Leatherneck, his latest base. On a sign posted by the entrance, Behar noticed a listing for Shabbat services. That week, only one other soldier showed up -- far from a minyan. Together, they conducted services anyway. The next Friday, another soldier came in, then another.
By last week, eight soldiers had joined in. They ranged from privates to captains. But for that one-hour service, rank formalities faded away as the sand-covered tent became their sanctuary, said Behar.
"No one called me 'sir,' I was just Avi. It kind of gave me a little piece of home."
For Rosh Hashanah, the Army sent an Orthodox chaplain to lead services.
"The taste of the kosher wine and challah the rabbi brought was the sweetest I've had since I've been here, and the Havdalah candle sparked the brightest flame in my heart," Behar wrote in an e-mail. "To me, this symbolizes everything Judaism is about; no matter when and where, we manage to find ourselves amongst the masses and unite. This is what has kept us from disappearing in the past thousands of years."
Unlike his family, the young soldier isn't counting down the days until his deployment ends. Behar said it made him feel good to hand out food to Afghanis and stand guard to ensure their right to vote during elections, even if those responsibilities sometimes limited his religious observance.
"I'm impacting people's lives," he said. "I'm in charge of 43 soldiers, and I sign for millions of dollars of equipment. How many people can say they've done that at my age?"
After his deployment ends next fall, Behar plans to study for a business degree and work his way up the ranks.
"This is what I was meant to do," he said. "If you have faith and confidence in yourself and your beliefs, it doesn't matter where you are. You overcome."