(page 2 of 3)
I think it’s a shame the JCC lost us, but it’s not just about us. Military families are a transient community, and Jewish institutions like JCCs work to cultivate permanent communities. It’s a worthy goal, but it doesn’t leave any room for Jewish military families whose tours of duty in one location vary from 15 months to three years. Given the relentless march of official studies and statistics proclaiming that Jews’ ties to Judaism are weakening, it seems to me that Jewish communities can’t afford to overlook anyone who is seeking them out.
It’s understandable that Jewish service members would fall under the radar of most active, affiliated Jews. When Jewish communities and book groups host me for a discussion of my memoir of being part of a military family, the No. 1 question is whether or not there are other Jews in the military like our family. There are. They write me long letters after reading my book, telling me that they, too, felt isolated and alone. There are 10,000 Jews in America’s military, according to the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council. It’s a small group by military standards, but it’s a significant number of Jews for the mainstream Jewish community to unintentionally write off.
Jewish military families like mine are often stationed in remote areas far from mainstream Jewish institutions, but there are ways to reach out and translate “Thank you for your service” into something tangible. Jewish groups should consider ways to acknowledge the unique needs of Jewish military families and welcome those families, even if it’s only for a short time. Here are a few ways to do that:
1. The JCC Association at the national level should offer a different membership structure to active-duty service members and to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and their immediate family members. Eight individual JCCs (out of 350) already do this but to make a statement and reach a much larger audience, it needs to be a national initiative.
2. Jewish cultural institutions and synagogues near military bases should reach out to the base chaplain’s office to connect with Jewish service members, offer to send speakers to the community and make synagogue services, including High Holy Days tickets, accessible without a membership.
3. Hillel should make outreach to Jewish military personnel as one of its core activities. After all, Hillel’s demographic includes college students ages 18–22; nearly one-half (49.3%) of active-duty enlisted personnel are 25 years old or younger, with the majority of those in the officer corps in their mid-30s. The age range is close, the extracurricular interests are aligned, and an effort to send appreciative words to Jewish service members or to show gratitude through care packages would be very meaningful. It would expose Jewish college students to a wider variety of Jewish experience and prepare future Jewish communal leaders for a better understanding of Jews in the military, so perhaps the next generation won’t feel so invisible.