Military Jews find religion when they can

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Risa Morris sits on Saddam Hussein’s throne at Al Far Palace in Baghdad. Photo courtesy of Risa Morris.

In 1983, Risa Morris was a young second lieutenant in the Air Force, fresh out of college and looking forward to celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Concrete, N.D., where she was stationed.

She wrote to her hometown rabbi in Louisiana asking for advice. He dug around and came up with an option: If she was willing to travel 115 miles north and cross the border into Canada, there was a small Reform synagogue in Winnipeg, Manitoba, that would be happy to have her stay with the congregation’s president.
So she got in her car and drove.


Such is the life of a Jew in the U.S. military, according to those who’ve lived it. If you want to live your Judaism, you make do with what you have when you can.

A survey by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute put the percentage of Jews serving in the military at just over 1 percent. And according some in the Washington area who’ve served, Jewish life in the armed forces can run the gamut from isolated outposts like Concrete to bases with thriving Jewish
communities nearby.

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Naomi Mercer’s career in the Army has taken her to every corner of the country and beyond. By the time she took a professor position teaching English at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2013, she’d already lived in Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Alabama and Iraq. She knew the fish-out-of-water feeling of being one of the only Jews in a place.

So when she began teaching at West Point, she was compelled to become a resource for Jewish cadets. Despite not feeling completely comfortable with some of the rabbi’s teachings on gender, she made a point to regularly attend his services at the Jewish chapel for any potential students to see.


“I wanted other Jews to know and to feel that there was a community. West Point is very heavily Christian, and there’s a large evangelical Christian population, and part of their practice is to proselytize,” says Mercer. “In my classes so much of the discussion was on identity and issues of gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, all of it. So not only was I exposing all of my students to more than the Christian identity they’d grown up with, but I also wanted my Jewish students to know they had a resource if they came into contact with me.”

At one point, that meant going to bat for a student whose professor was unwilling to reschedule an exam that fell on a Jewish holiday. In another instance, Mercer helped a Jewish student with a dress code issue that wasn’t even related to religion.

She now works at the Pentagon, heading up the Army’s gender integration policy and handling questions of religious accommodation. She and her family belong to Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria. But her sense of communal responsibility to other Jews in uniform was forged, at least in part, during her time overseas on a tour of duty in Iraq. Almost every practicing Jew is, at some point, forced into the role of a lay leader out of necessity, and she was the only Jew in her 4,000-troop unit at Tallil Air Base in Iraq. Most often, Shabbat service amounted to a gathering of four or five people from various units meeting in a small room with wine. For certain holidays, an Army rabbi would be on base. For others, she’d have to travel for services.

One year, she flew by helicopter to Baghdad to take her GRE exam and for a large Yom Kippur service. It wound up being the only time in Iraq that she came under fire. It was by far the most treacherous route to a High Holiday service she’s ever encountered.

A discovery in South Korea

Being one of the only Jews around can also lead to unexpected discovery, says Jim Sturim, who spent 25 years in the Air Force. Now a member at Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, he was stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea from 2009-2011, where he learned about the Korean government’s history of promoting Talmudic study among its population, compelled by what they saw as Jews’ impressive intelligence. The government was convinced that it came from the Jewish tradition of text study, Sturim says. Decades later, without much in the way of Jewish life on base, Sturim discovered a small community of Korean Jewish converts.

“It was fascinating worshipping with them and getting to know them,” Sturim says. “They didn’t have any of the culture. There was no bagels and lox, none of that was a part of their Judaism. It’s really a Talmudic-based Judaism.”

Kosher Korean food, he discovered, isn’t something you’ll find many places either.
“Famine has been a large part of Korean history. They were importing much of their food until about 15 years ago,” Sturim says. “The idea that we would actually limit what we eat was crazy to them.”

But over his long and decorated career — Sturim flew 65 combat missions over Iraq — religion has been, at times, a source of discomfort. The military’s heavily Christian identity could occasionally create tension.

While in Iraq, he had to confront a fellow member of his unit about Bible study invitations he was getting in his inbox.

“It’d say things like, ‘Today we’re studying why Jesus is the only way to get to heaven.’ Or, ‘How should we proselytize to people who don’t believe?’” Sturim says.

Initially, his unit mate’s response was dismissive, telling Sturim to simply delete the invitations. “The military has a very strong born-again Christian community, and that can make a lot of other people feel like outsiders. It can be a challenge, but then again this isn’t something Jews haven’t dealt with throughout the millennia, it’s just a much smaller scale.”

In certain places, Sturim was the only Jew around. He developed a sense of having to represent the entire community to people who, in some cases, had never known a Jew before. He tried to be available to educate others without coming off as aggressive.

“You want to tell people, ‘Come to services. We have nothing to hide and want you to know what Judaism is about, not because we want you to become a Jew,’” Sturim says.

Support from back home

Morris, Mercer and Sturim agree that more often than not, Jewish life in the military — however one defines that — requires initiative, whether it means taking on lay leadership duties or simply making sure a supervisor understands that certain holidays require certain accommodations. Ultimately, they say, Jewish life in uniform is what you make of it.

For Morris, it was rarely easy, so she did her best to put down what roots she could early, joining Temple B’nai
Shalom in 1991. It gave her a community to connect with when she was physically without one. Care packages with menorahs, challah, and other comforts of a Jewish home arrived during her deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, sent from the congregation or other groups.

And she developed her own Shabbat tradition overseas. Amid some of some of the heaviest violence of the Iraq war, she was in Baghdad, working as the chief of analysis for the Iraq survey group that would ultimately produce the 2004 report on weapons of mass destruction. Saturdays became her day to reach out to friends and family back home, sending out an email by noon every week to let people know that she was OK.

“It’s easy to practice your faith in an environment where you can just take work off and everything’s available to you,” Morris says. “It’s different when it’s a challenge. I couldn’t lose such a big part of my character and my values while I was deployed. It was even more important to hold on to that part of
humanity, because you were surrounded by inhumanity.”

When Morris retired, she made a tallit out from uniforms she wore in Iraq and Afghanistan, and gave it to her rabbi as a thank you for all the support she’d gotten while overseas.

“My faith is who I am and my military service is who I am,” Morris says. “My sense of values and what makes up my character is as much military as it is Jewish, and as much Jewish as it is
military.”

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