When Andrew Voelke walks up to the bima at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield on Veterans Day 2016 for his bar mitzvah ceremony, he will be surrounded by Rabbi Bruce Aft, his mother Traci, his little brother Benjamin and family and friends. While he recites his haftarah portion and becomes a responsible member of the Jewish community, his father will not be there and that will be the toughest part for everyone involved, especially Andrew.
That is because Paul Voelke died in Afghanistan summer of 2012 at the age of 36 when the U.S. Army major was accidentally struck and killed by an Army vehicle in the town of Mazar E. Sharif. His remains were flown to Dover Air Force Base, and Rabbi Aft met Voelke and the family there. The high school sweethearts had met at Monroe Woodbury High School in Monroe, N.Y., about 20 minutes from West Point where her husband was laid to rest.
“It was very touching for us that [Rabbi Aft] got involved in that way by being there with us in Dover and was really great with the boys, for example playing a game of catch with Andrew to take his mind off the situation,” says Voelke, 38, a University of Maryland alumna who moved to Northern Virginia area in 2006. The family was living in Savannah, Ga., near where her husband was stationed at Fort Stewart, when the news came that he was killed in Afghanistan.
They have since moved back to the region, settling in Springfield close to Adat Reyim. Voelke, who is an attorney specializing in estate planning and family law, says that Rabbi Aft helped them cope with their tremendous loss. “When we moved back here it was open arms and what can we do to help you connect and bring you in to the community,” says Voelke.
Last Friday afternoon, as the school bus dropped off Andrew, 11, and Benjamin, 8, from West Springfield Elementary School, Voelke welcomed the boys back to their Springfield townhome where they were greeted by their poodle Rowan and Voelke’s mom Bonny and stepfather Rich (Voelke’s father died, and her mother remarried).
“Hello sir,” said A.J., as Andrew’s family and friends call him. A.J. bears a striking physical resemblance to his late father with his straight, reddish hair and, according to the boy’s mother, the sixth-grader has “exactly the same personality” – respectfully addressing strangers with a “yes sir” and “no sir.”
Rabbi Aft calls A.J. “a very mature kid. He’s got to be. Look what he has been through.” Rabbi Aft says that it is both a both a blessing and a challenge that A.J. carries so many of the qualities his father possessed since it reminds Voelke of her late husband. Rabbi Aft says that Judaism places a high priority on what the Sh’ma prayer refers to as V’shinan’tam l’vanekha (And you shall teach them diligently to your children). “So there is a lot of weight on her shoulders,” says Rabbi Aft of Voelke.
What really helped both A.J. and his mom in their grieving process was a group trip they took to Israel earlier this year with an organization called Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) that helps military families grieve the loss of a service member. It was their first trip to Israel and the trip strengthened A.J.’s Jewish identity. “He came home wanting to wear a yarmulke. It definitely inspired him,” says Voelke.
A.J. enjoyed the desert, the Dead Sea and Masada, but says he was concerned about the poor and homeless people he encountered in southern Israel. Voelke said this compassion for the less fortunate is a trait passed down from his father.
She says that while A.J. will want to pay tribute to his late father at his bar mitzvah, the fact that he just lost his father and was upset about the homeless people in Israel shows he is “not one to dwell or feel like woe is me … he wants to help other people. So I think we will incorporate elements into the ceremony but I definitely think he doesn’t want it to be all about that.”
While in Israel, they linked up with a group called Israel Defense Forces Widows and Orphans (IDFWO), a similar organization to TAPS that assists survivors in Israel. They stayed with a family and visited the Kotel for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) ceremonies. (IDFWO families visit D.C. during Memorial Day weekend for a grief camp.)
“They had some of the survivors lighting the torch and you could just see the grief in their eyes. Knowing we’ve been there and that the everyday struggles are the same was so special for us,” says Voelke. A.J. recalled the story their host family shared and said he could relate to their experience.
“Their dad died in a war because Palestinians were attacking an Israeli base and … a grenade killed him. It was just really sad. I mean it’s at least good that the two of our dads died doing something useful – serving our country.”