It may come as a surprise, but there are Jews in the U.S. military. Alison Buckholtz’s Navy pilot husband, Scott, is one of them. Buckholtz and her young children moved across the country to a town with no synagogue, few Jews, and soon no Scott – who would leave for a 7-month deployment. Her new memoir, “Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War,” is an inside look at military culture for a civilian population. Buckholtz addresses the civil-military gap – the widening rift between military and nonmilitary in this country – which emerged after the draft was abolished and suddenly fewer families sent one of their own to war. She opens the curtain on her own family in hopes of disassembling stereotypes, and reveals her struggle to keep her kids’ lives seemingly normal while dad is away at war.
She spoke with the Forward’s Allison Gaudet Yarrow.
Allison Gaudet Yarrow: How did you come to write Standing By?
Alison Buckholtz: My mom pushed me in my stroller during the anti-war rallies. I had a lot of stereotypes about the military. When I met my husband they were shattered. As an outsider turned insider, I could translate what I saw as two Americas.
Do you find yourself having to defend the military?
I avoid being an apologist. I try to keep politics out of it. The frequent, repeated and unpredictable deployments define the current generation of military spouses and families. It’s important that everyone in America know what military families are going through.
Why did you want to get involved with the group, Navy Wives?
My husband wasn’t sure how I would adjust to being a military spouse. When he was selected to be squadron commander, we talked about the role of a squadron commander’s wife – this leadership role among the spouses. I chose to take it on because our 3-year tour was going to be challenging. It was a way to work in partnership. I gave up my job – I had been working for 10 years full time before I entered this world. I’m not getting the kind of stimulation you get from work, but it’s enriching.
Were you surprised to learn there were Jews in the military?
I was very surprised that there was an active community of Jews, that there were rabbis who traveled the world helping Jewish service members celebrate the holidays, and that there were organizations to support Jewish service members. When my husband and I moved, I called the Chaplain’s office on base and asked where I could go. When they referred me to a messianic synagogue nearby I was horrified because I knew enough to know that this was a messianic organization that I didn’t want anything to do with.
But they didn’t know enough.
I was fearful for the other Jewish service members who called in. That’s why we immediately volunteered to be the Jewish lay leaders for the base.
What were your responsibilities?
The Jewish lay leader is certified by the JWB [Jewish Welfare Board] and the Chaplain’s office on base. You’re the main point of contact for Jewish resources. There are 10-15 families. We gather together around the holidays. It wasn’t necessarily what I’d envisioned, but it’s worked out beautifully for the community and we treasure what we have.
How did you create Jewish life for your young family in Anacortes, Washington, a place without any?
We depended on Jewish CDs and DVDs. We couldn’t go to services so we started watching services to give our kids a sense of what a synagogue is and what you do in a Jewish service. We did Shabbat dinner every Friday night at home and each week we added a new tradition.
You talk about the civil-military gap. How does it affect Jews?
Jews are a microcosm of American society. Jewish participation in the military reflects that – just as a certain demographic of Americans don’t serve in the military, that same demographic of Jews don’t serve either.
We have all heard about discrimination in the military. Is antisemitism prevalent?
We’ve been really lucky. We haven’t seen any. I read about some things in the Air Force and other services – troops feeling like they were being evangelized to. I was sensitive to that coming in. It’s been refreshing and encouraging that what we have seen has been well-meaning curiosity.
You write that some families prefer when the service member is away, because his/her presence can be disruptive to family life. Have you experienced this?
You’re counseled to let nature take its course – not to rush becoming a family again. We were lucky because after my husband’s last deployment the four of us did become a family very easily again. We went on a day trip together and there was a paraglider soaring and my husband was holding each of the kids’ hands and they were watching. It was mesmerizing, but instead of watching the paraglider I was watching my husband and kids watch him and point and talk to each other. It was the normalcy of that scene that moved me because nothing about our lives had been normal for a long time. Here we were like any other family. No one knew what we had been through and it didn’t matter because it was over.