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Jewish Military Families Finding A Virtual Home On ‘The Brave’

For Judy Ledger, an administrator at an Atlanta synagogue, the bumper stickers on her Honda SUV speak a thousand words. On one side, a sticker proclaims — in Hebrew — her love of nature. On the other, she proudly declares “My Son is in the Army,” “My Daughter is in the Army” and, simply, “Go Army!”

“People would stare at it and say, ‘That is just bizarre,’” Ledger said. “It’s almost shocking to them. It’s not typical to see Jewish youth in the Army. It’s supposed to be college, then on to great jobs and careers. People are surprised that kids from upper-class, traditional Jewish families would ever think of it.”

Ledger, however, never felt anything but pride. Well, make that pride mixed with worry; her 24-year-old son awaits deployment to Kuwait or Turkey, her 21-year-old daughter has volunteered for deployment and her children’s respective fiancees are about to head overseas as well. “I don’t get much sleep these days,” she admitted. “I’ve been living on Mylanta. I’ve never been through anything like this.”

Ledger is thankful, however, that she no longer feels alone: Earlier this month “The Brave,” a computer listserv sponsored by the Web site of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was created as a sort of online support group for parents and spouses of Jewish servicemen and women. Launched February 4, the list was intended for families to voice their fears and worries concerning loved ones who may see combat.

“There is a desire to express certain kinds of minority feelings,” said the list’s creator, Deborah Astor, whose son, a 28-year-old Marine officer, was deployed to the Middle East. “We’re a minority within a minority.”

The list’s archived series of e-mail messages offer a fascinating glimpse into a small but vocal group of American Jews for whom war is not an abstraction but a looming reality. The Brave appears to have galvanized a “minority within a minority” that extends far beyond soldiers’ families. During the last three weeks, the list has expanded into a panoply of Jewish voices and now boasts 100-plus members, among them veterans, soldiers and chaplains. Some ask for practical advice: What do I do with my son’s car? What long-distance plan offers the cheapest rates for Korea? Others offer vignettes, poetry, uplifting quotes; still other postings have sparked heated debates — not surprisingly, given the lively Jewish tradition of argumentation — about sexism in the military and the anti-war movement.

Estimates of the number of Jews serving in the armed forces commonly range from 5,000 to 8,000. However, according to Rabbi David Lapp, director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, “nobody knows.” Lapp estimates that there are 27 full-time Jewish chaplains in the military, 65 part-time chaplains and some 70 lay leaders in places where there are no chaplains. However, he said, “Even they wouldn’t know — it’s a very private matter.”

Top concerns on The Brave pertain to maintenance of Jewish identity. Messages inquire about finding Jewish contacts for their children, locating far-flung synagogues and sending religious supplies overseas. “The Jewish community has a responsibility” to its soldiers, Astor said. “We need to find a way to embrace them, communicate with them, provide support. It’s difficult to be observant in the military, but clearly there is a population there that we want to make feel a part of the large American Jewish community.”

The Brave is not the only example of Jews looking to reach out to Jews in the armed forces. “Operation Enduring Traditions” sends Purim baskets and Passover supplies to soldiers deployed all over the world. The packages are a project of the Aleph Institute — a Chabad-affiliated organization that also provides services to Jews in the prison system. “The common denominator is that these are Jewish people separated from their communities, their homes,” said the institute’s director, Rabbi Menachem Katz. “Sometimes Jewish traditions and practices are more difficult for them.”

Some on the list dismissed religious observance as a luxury in troubled times. “My least concern right now is my son finding a shul,” read one posting from a woman seeking to make a distinction between those stationed here at home and her son, who was deployed on Sunday “to some country far away.”

Nonetheless, Jewish connection to other Jews is a top priority — both for those on the ground and those watching events unfold on CNN. Many on the list speak of anticipated communications from their loved ones overseas. “My son has been deployed to the Gulf,” writes one woman, a synagogue director in Colorado. “He is on a destroyer, the USS Fletcher… Thank goodness they have the capabilities to keep in touch with us by e-mail. I look forward to checking my e-mails each morning to see if he has sent something. It doesn’t matter what he says, just seeing something from him brightens my day.”

The Brave began when Astor, executive director of Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass., remembered that her son, a Jewish lay leader in the Marines, had mentioned that a rabbi’s son was in his unit. Some sleuthing led Astor to Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Los Angeles, whose son, indeed, was in the same battalion as Astor’s. A support group of two was born; not long afterward, Astor contacted the Conservative movement to see if it was willing to host the list.

“It’s definitely filling a void,” said Gary Simms, a synagogue executive whose son, a 21-year-old medic, is serving in the Army in Korea. “One of the things I’m very happy about, is that it’s grown from UCSJ to encouraging the entire Jewish community to participate. For me, personally, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. My wife and I trade our own fears and concerns, but it’s nice to know there other people out there who share them.”

“On a personal, emotional level, it’s heartbreaking, anxiety-producing and terrifying,” said Finley, himself a former Marine, of his son’s deployment. “Twice a day, when I’m alone, I take it out of a little box, deal with it, and put it back in the box. I spend the rest of the time being extremely proud.”

True to his military background, he said: “It has to be somebody’s son. It might as well be mine.”

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