Officer’s Death Highlights Dearth of Jews in the Military

Soldier for Peace: Benjamin Sklaver (left) on his first tour of duty in Uganda, where he was known as ‘Ben Moses.’
JAKE HERRLE
Soldier for Peace: Benjamin Sklaver (left) on his first tour of duty in Uganda, where he was known as ‘Ben Moses.’

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published October 13, 2009, issue of October 23, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Benjamin Sklaver was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan on October 2, he was just 32 years old, but had already made a remarkable impact on the world. Sklaver, a U.S. Army captain, was a dedicated soldier motivated by a desire to help others, which grew from his commitment to Judaism.

“He was a combatant for peace,” said his friend, Jake Herrle. “He wasn’t a warrior, he was there to spread peace in the world.”

He was also one of the relatively small number of members of the armed forces who identify as Jewish. The scarcity extends to the chaplaincy, where there are very few rabbis to serve Jewish members, leading to an even greater isolation. As a result, as America debates the wisdom and strategy of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the stories of Jewish soldiers like Benjamin Sklaver are often overlooked.

On his first tour of duty, in Uganda in 2007, Sklaver was assigned a “civil affairs” role involving infrastructure and community-building. He saw children die after drinking polluted water because village wells were ruined by civil strife.

Dozens of wells were rebuilt under his command, and as soon as he returned to the United States, Sklaver created ClearWater Initiative. In its first year, the not-for-profit (www.clearwaterinitiative.org) raised more than $24,000 and repaired wells that now provide clean drinking water for 5,600 impoverished Ugandans.

Force for Good: Sklaver followed his Jewish values.
laura sklaver
Force for Good: Sklaver followed his Jewish values.

Sklaver had enrolled in Army ROTC while attending the Graduate School of International Affairs at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, where he earned a degree in law and diplomacy focusing on security and humanitarian studies. After returning from Africa, he became a reserve officer and worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. There he befriended Herrle, who recalled, “Ben had overwhelming compassion and the ability to combine that passion with his experience and get things done.”

When his unit was called up again, he had just moved to New York to be near his fiancée and her young son.

“He could have gotten out of it. Officers can always resign from the Army; but he felt the obligation to do good in Afghanistan,” said Rabbi Herbert Brockman, leader of the Congregation Mishkan Israel, the family’s longtime synagogue in Hamden, Conn.

Brockman officiated at Sklaver’s bar mitzvah and had planned to officiate at his wedding to Beth Segaloff next June. Instead, the rabbi presided over his funeral.

Sklaver’s choice to enlist in the armed forces was one that few young American Jews make. According to Department of Defense statistics, just 4,677 of 1.4 million currently in the active military identify themselves as Jewish. The actual number is higher, experts say, because many state no religious preference.

There are 10,000 to 14,000 Jews in the active military, said Admiral Harold Robinson, a Reform rabbi and director of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council. Most “just don’t make an issue of their being Jewish,” he said. “You’re living with 120 other people who know everything about you. Being Jewish can be one more source of pressure or conflict. It’s much better than it was 30 or 40 years ago, but we still have all kinds of incidents where young people act out.”

Jewish chaplains say that most conflicts are rooted in ignorance. “Some kid from Alabama says, ‘Jesus loves you; you ought to come to chapel services with us,’” Robinson said. “It’s not commonplace, but is part of the reason that Jews tend to be cautious about their identification. The military is like high school on steroids. Being Jewish doesn’t help you fit in.”

At the Air Force Academy in 2005, Jewish and Christian students said that evangelical Christian officers were aggressively proselytizing them. An academy graduate filed suit against the Air Force, but the suit was dismissed in 2007.

As a Jew in the military, working particularly in the Middle East, “you have to use your seykhl,” or common sense, said Rabbi Irving Elson, a Navy captain and chaplain. “When visiting Jewish personnel in Bahrain, you’d be stupid to wear a yarmulke, so you wear a baseball cap.”

Several Jewish chaplains said that the biggest challenge they face is the simple lack of rabbis willing to sign on. “Jews in the military are underserved, have largely been ignored by the American Jewish community, and these amazing young men and women need rabbis,” Elson said.

Of 900 Navy chaplains, he said, only eight are Jewish. “Two of us cover the entire Pacific region. It’s frustrating because we know we can’t get to everybody. I’m sure there were Jews without High Holy Day services.

“People are nice in terms of sending care packages, but dry socks and kosher candy we can get from other sources. I need rabbis to come help me take care of the Jewish people.”

Sklaver saw his service as an extension of his Jewish mandate to be a force for good in the world, said his father, Gary Sklaver. He went to Hebrew school and later was active in a youth group and then in Hillel, and worked as a counselor at a Jewish camp.

On Yom Kippur, a Monday, Gary Sklaver sat on the bimah and led a prayer for soldiers. The following Friday evening, two Army officers came to the door and informed him his son had been killed that day.

“Once you see two soldiers at your door, you know what it means,” he told the Forward.

On October 3, late at night, Ben Sklaver’s body arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Though officials said that it would take several days to release his remains, the Sklaver family and Senator Joseph Lieberman, among others, pressed the military so that he could be buried promptly.

His body arrived in Connecticut the very next night and was taken to the synagogue. When the rabbi put out a call asking people to sit with the body until burial, as mandated by Jewish tradition, 75 offered. The next day, Ben Sklaver was buried in a family plot near his maternal grandparents, at a picturesque Jewish cemetery. In addition to his father, he is survived by his mother, Laura; a brother, Sam, and a sister, Anna.

“The term I keep using is tikkun olam,” his father said. “He very strongly followed the Jewish teaching that we may not be able to finish the task, but we have to start it. His goal was to repair the world. He was prepared to do it one person at a time.”

Contact Debra Nussbaum Cohen at dnussbaumc@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.