My Son the Sailor: Honoring Our Jewish Servicemen
by Vicky Farhi
It’s been four years since my son Joel first told his father and I that while college was nice, he wanted to serve his country and had chosen the Navy. Three months later, he was accepted into the navy’s nuclear training program and 6 months after that successfully completed boot camp. Last week, I was meeting with several rabbinic students and learned that one of their classmates was away at Navy boot camp, training to be a Navy chaplain.
Before Joel joined the Navy, I knew of just a few Jews who served in the United States Armed Forces. I’ve since learned that we are represented across the armed services, with both men and women serving in a variety of roles and a growing number of HUC rabbinic students training to be military chaplains. The ways the Jewish community can provide a welcome and support are numerous.
In 2004, while working as a Synagogue Executive Director, I received a call from a congregant who was in the Army reserves and would shortly be deployed. He had a wife and children and wanted to arrange synagogue finances for the time he would be gone. My response reflected the mission of the congregation: You are taking care of us; we will take care of you and your family. The following year, when he safely returned from his deployment, he came to the synagogue to see the rabbi. The hug he gave the rabbi told me all I needed to know about how important it was to this soldier to know that while deployed his congregational community was taking care of his family, was there for him.
This past Biennial, the URJ offered its first learning session on how congregations can support the Jewish military families that are in congregational and/or extended communities. There are many more Jewish families involved in the military than we realize and they require extra support from our congregations. For those families who are affiliated, knowing there is assistance when a family member deploys is invaluable. Connecting to the deployed congregant provides comfort. Young Jewish families may not have access to a synagogue either because of distance or financial ability. Many young men and women who had limited Jewish upbringing discover they want more while in the service – we want them to have a congregational home that is there for them. We’ve also discovered that there are many spiritual seekers in the military who find themselves drawn to Judaism.
What is it like to be the Jewish mom of a sailor? My son’s assignment is on a nuclear submarine. As military assignments go, this is considered to be both an impressive assignment and relatively safe. I know very little about what he does, which is as it should be. I do know that he goes out on the submarine for long periods of time during which we have limited contact via email and no phone contact at all. And I know that just like any military family, we worry about him and miss him.
At the URJ Biennial, we honored two Reform rabbis who serve as chaplains in our armed forces by inviting them to say the Prayer for our Country during Shabbat morning services. Our chaplains deploy with our troops, travel to dangerous combat zones to provide comfort and religious services, and dedicate their work to engaging Jews. For me, it was a moment of thanks and appreciation for these rabbis doing sacred work. It was a moment of thanks that our Jewish community strives to support our armed forces. It was an acknowledgment that, as I taught my children, freedom comes with a price, it is never free.