Judaism has always played a central role in Paul Becker’s life — from his decision to serve in the U.S. Navy to his leadership philosophy.
Becker, 60, a retired rear admiral and president of the Friends of the United States Naval Academy’s Jewish Chapel in Annapolis, said the Jewish concept of tikkun olam is “consistent with the mission of a United States Naval officer. Building up junior officers, guiding and fostering leadership in your crew and eliminating threats — there is a little bit of tikkun olam in that.”
Becker served 33 years in the Navy, during which time he served on both coasts, in Italy, France, Saudi Arabia, Pearl Harbor, Bahrain, Iraq and Afghanistan, afloat and ashore, in peace, in crisis and in war. With Veterans Day approaching on Nov. 11, Becker considers the role of American Jews in the military.
In the United States, there has always been an impression that Jews do not serve in the armed forces, Becker said. As a student of history, Becker pushed back against this view, but was understanding as to why some people may hold it.
“Jews are, at most, 2 percent of the [U.S.] population,” said Becker. “Two percent of the military population is also Jewish. While that is proportional, strictly by the numbers, there just are not that many of us — it can be tough to find a Jew.”
Inside the Academy’s Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel in Annapolis — named for the first Jewish flag officer in the Navy and completed in 2005 — Becker said he felt called to serve from an early age. No one in his family had made a career in the armed forces, but he had a keen interest in history and the military. Add all of his grandparents fled pogroms in Eastern Europe.
“As an American Jew, I felt I had skin in the game,” he said.
At the Academy, Becker teaches leadership as an adjunct professor. He said Hillel’s Golden Rule and Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah played significant roles in shaping his style of leadership.
They are good frameworks for an officer. The specifics of how one uses them — the operations and tactics — are up to the officer.”
“I never experienced antisemitism during my time in the Navy,” he said. Because he knows antisemitism does exist in the military, Becker always wanted to reflect the Jewish community in a positive light.
“Because we are so few, people will judge our whole religion off of one person. Because of this, I tried to take on more responsibilities than I might have chosen to otherwise.”
“What keeps Jews together is our sense of community,” said Becker “More often than not, it was difficult to make a minyan for Shabbat.”
As a Jewish lay leader in the Navy, Becker led high holiday and Shabbat services and Passover seders — both on ships and on solid ground. “In the military, as a Jew, you are entitled to take part in the nearest Jewish service. Jewish sailors serving on smaller craft would be airlifted to aircraft carriers or other facilities where they could take part in larger services,” said Becker.
Now, Becker attends services regularly at the Jewish chapel. When he was a student at the Academy, the chapel did not exist and the Academy did not have many of the amenities that Jewish midshipmen take for granted now.
“There was no rabbi and no Jewish chapel. For decades an Annapolis Jewish community lay leader — Ret. Army Col. Harry Lindauer — led Friday night services.” Midshipmen who wanted to worship in synagogue attended Knesseth Israel Synagogue in Annapolis or Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold.
Becker said that a lot of Jews in the armed forces do not self-identify. “Not everyone is observant or called Rabinowitz,” said Becker. “If you are a Jew but your name is Smith, people likely will not assume you are Jewish.”
All of these factors contribute to the false perception that Jews do not serve in the military, Becker said.
Becker is also a member of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, established to fight antisemitism the misguided view that Jews do not serve, said Becker.
“Jews have served in every conflict.”