Fewer than 225 Jewish students attend America’s armed forces academies—but while their numbers are small, their sense of duty to serve their nation and their attachment to Judaism are strong. And regardless of which military branch they joined, they all appear to have found a welcoming Jewish home at the academy—plus a respite from the rigors of academy life.
In some ways, the Jewish college experience at the U.S. Military, Coast Guard, Naval, and Air Force academies—with the exception of mandatory wearing of military uniforms—is no different from that of any other small campus, with Shabbat and holiday services, guest speakers, and programs such as Israel education days. In other aspects, it differs dramatically. Every fall, Jewish Warrior Weekend brings together Jewish students from all four military academies, along with civilian college students, for Shabbat services, guest speakers, and an afternoon football game.
Another difference is that non-Jews get involved in Jewish activities “in numbers larger than we see elsewhere,” says Jeff Rubin, associate vice president for communication at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. At the 4,000+ member U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where about 60 cadets identify as Jewish, Cadet Corporal Gallup, 19, estimates that some 30 percent of those involved in the Jewish club are not Jewish. They come for the camaraderie, he says, noting that cadets are encouraged to bring friends to events, and most of those friends are not Jewish.
Military life was a given for Gallup, who spent much of his childhood living outside of Fort Hood, Texas, the Army base where his father was stationed. He has a picture of himself at age three or four wearing a
future cadet T-shirt.
Now Gallup sings with the Jewish a cappella group and heads the campus Hillel.
The number of Jewish students at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut barely constitutes a minyan in a student population of 1,000. Here, too, many in the Jewish club aren’t Jewish. “We have all faiths in our club,” says First Class Cadet Natalie Rothman, 23, past president of the academy’s Hill-El, which often holds services and programs with nearby Connecticut College.
Even her co-president isn’t Jewish. “We managed to make a Protestant Mexican guy the head of the club,” she says, quipping that First Class Cadet Brian Bartay had originally joined for the free Chinese food the group orders for its regular meetings.
Bartay, though, says he got involved to help out administratively, because he believes that “it’s important as a Christian to gain a full understanding of other religions. The Bible says that the Jews are God’s chosen people, and I support Israel because I believe that any country that turns its back on Israel is doomed to fail.”
Rothman, who became a bat mitzvah and was confirmed at Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg, Virginia, also comes from a military family. Her dad served in the Army, one brother is in the Air Force, and another brother is in the Marines. When she was six months old, her family moved to Israel and, though she was back in the States by age three, the fact that military service is mandatory in the Jewish state has always been in the back of her mind. “I wanted to serve,” she says. “If I’m physically able, I should.” Initially interested in the Navy, she ultimately joined the Coast Guard, viewing it as “more of a humanitarian
than a fighting service.”
Cadet First Class Dustin Tanen, 22, of the U.S. Air Force Academy, also felt he had “a duty to serve,” citing his father’s Army service, a love of history, flying lessons, and his appreciation “of what this country has offered people since its inception.” Aware that Jewish students had complained a few years back about Christian evangelizing at the Academy—where only about 40 students are Jewish out of a total population of 4,000—he anticipated that he would be “particularly sensitive” to proselytizing, but has not experienced such problems.
“Initially, it was a shock being such a minority,” he says, “but finding other Jewish cadets has led to my going to Friday night services more than I ever did. Being away from home, it’s sort of more important to be around people like me….Even though I’m going to be a fighter pilot if everything works out, I’m still a nice Jewish boy from Connecticut.”
—Debra Rubin, a freelance writer and former editor of the Washington Jewish Week