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Serving country and religion: Orthodox Jews in the American military

 

 

My friend tossed aside his application to join the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), a program that trains college students to become officers in the U.S. military. “I can’t do that to my parents,” he solemnly told me. My friend had recently interned with a local congresswoman, and the experience piqued his interest in public service. But after his parents got wind of his plans to enroll in basic training, they forced him to withdraw his application, arguing that the military was no place for an Orthodox Jew.

In the Orthodox community, very rarely do I hear about people applying to serve in the American army. I have always observed the prospect discussed as though it were taboo--even amongst friends who’ve eventually joined the IDF. American nationalism seems to be generally frowned upon in the ultra-Orthodox world, and I haven’t heard much encouragement to join the military from the Modern Orthodox community either. The thought of joining the American army has always struck me as being incompatible with living religiously. In addition to that, though, I’ve also heard myriad rumors claiming that the army is filled with anti-Semitism. 

A few weeks back, The Beacon Magazine interviewed Dovi Meles, an Orthodox Jew who just began an internship to become a Public Affairs Officer in the U.S. Army. Meles is enrolled in the same military program that my friend was interested in, which made his story particularly fascinating to me. According to him, the State Department is exceedingly accommodating to those with specific religious needs. “There hasn’t been any issue at all with Shabbos or kashrus,” he said of his experience. And not only has he not experienced anti-Semitism, but he sees his newfound career as an opportunity to help the Jewish people in ways “vastly different than pro-Israel lobbies like AIPAC, ZOA, and other NGOs.” Because, to Meles, “it’s deeply important for religious Jews of all ages to be involved in public service.”

While many American Jews contribute to public service, few Orthodox serve in the U.S. military. However, the anti-Semitism that may have existed in the past no longer exists today, as the army continues to become more and more progressive. As Dovi Meles’ experience should demonstrate, this progression has influenced the way the military accommodates religious minorities. 

In my experience as a student, I’ve never once heard an Orthodox Jewish leader or rabbi encourage American public service as a potential career choice. And I think that’s unfortunate. As it now stands, joining the army as an Orthodox Jew is seen pessimistically, and little is being done to change that reality. The United States of America has done more than any other country to promote our heritage and our Zionism, and it is important for our entire community to recognize that. 

When I consider my friend’s decision to withdraw his application, I realize how much work needs to be done to change my community's perception of the army. With the help of Orthodox men and women like Dovi Meles, hopefully this perception will begin to change with time. In the future, I pray that my community will know that all options are on the table when it comes to choosing a career.
 

 

 
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