AS THE SAYING goes, “today I am a man; tomorrow I need a ride to middle school.” That was true of my Hebrew school classmates as they celebrated their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, and then their lives went back to normal. But as I celebrated mine, my whole world changed forever.
I remember standing at the podium. I saw friends, family, and classmates. I saw a soldier wearing both a kippah and a cross. It was an unusual sight on an unusual day. My Bar Mitzvah was the day after my father’s Army National Guard unit left for a year-long deployment to Iraq. The soldier in the pews was his unit’s chaplain. He insisted that my dad be allowed to delay his departure to experience this milestone, and he came to support us. As I recited blessings, I knew that ready or not, I was really becoming a man that day — the man of the house. My mouth chanted in Hebrew, but my mind wandered.
Hashkiveinu Adonai eloheinu l’shalom,
(Shelter us beneath Your wings)
“Will this be the last time my family will ever come to temple together?”
v’ha-amideinu malkeinu l’chayim;
(Guard us from all harmful things)
“IF he comes home one year from now, will he be the same as when he left?”
Ufros aleinu sukat sh’lomecha,
(Keep us safe throughout the night)
“Will he come home at all?”
We said goodbye to my dad early the next morning. Watching him walk away was one of the proudest moments of my life. I saw how much he didn’t want to leave us, but knew he had to go to protect the freedom of religion that we were so lucky to have just experienced.
Though many things have changed in my life, two have stayed constant: my strong Jewish identity and my desire to be a soldier, just like my dad. Growing up, this became evident to everyone who met me. When I attended Jewish preschool, my favorite outfit was Army fatigues. I wore them every day. On Purim, other kids came dressed as Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, or Queen Esther. Predictably, I dressed up as a soldier.
When I was in second grade, my dad deployed for the first time. I missed him terribly. This was made worse when I saw signs at war protests in my town calling soldiers “baby killers.” In response, my sister and I started a military appreciation banner program in our town. It was hugely controversial and things got ugly. My family received anonymous hate mail; people threw eggs at our program’s July 4th parade float; and an editorial in the newspaper compared the program thought up by Jewish children to Nazi propaganda.
It was times like this that other military families could turn to their spiritual communities for support. But that was very difficult for us because many in our community had a hard time relating to a military family. They would often unknowingly say insensitive and hurtful things. Instead of supporting my mom who was trying to balance life with my dad away, people would remind her that there were “lots of single moms out there.” What she needed to hear was “how are YOU doing?” “How can we help your family through this?” She needed community support – regardless of the unpopularity of the wars. I noticed she often stood by herself at Onegs just to avoid the questions and comments.
I soon attended Jewish summer camp and learned more about my faith, about Israel and the IDF. One of my counselors was in the Israeli Army and it was as much a part of him as being a Jew was. I was struck by the fact that the Jewish community warmly embraced IDF soldiers, but not necessarily American ones. Regardless, my Jewish identity was growing stronger and my desire to become a soldier never faltered.
When people found out my dad was deployed stateside some would say, “at least he’s not in Iraq.” Looking back, I can understand they were likely trying to be supportive, and grateful he wasn’t in perceived danger. Imagine how disturbing it was for our family to hear that was where he would be sent next. Then, when he WAS in Iraq people would say “at least he is not in Afghanistan.” Yet that is exactly where he is now.
The hurtful words directed at my mother were one thing, but sometimes an image is worth a thousand words. While my dad was in Iraq, my sister was in Confirmation class and joined her classmates on an Interfaith Walk intended to promote cultural understanding between Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in the San Gabriel Valley. Imagine my sister’s horror when she saw a man pulling a wagon with an American flag draped over a box to look like a coffin. As my sister stood by in tears, the march continued around her. That day there was no understanding of military culture or the daily worry and stress of military families. Hillel teaches that we should not isolate ourselves from our community. Our community did the isolating for us.
Despite the challenges, my mom worked to reach out to our congregation to help them better understand military families. In time, things changed for the better. It made me feel proud that some of the members in our congregation answered her call to support Jewish soldiers. Our congregation worked together to pack and mail out “Shabbat-In-A-Box” kits to my dad overseas.
When it came time for me to choose an Eagle Scout project, I wanted to give something back to my congregation. I enlisted the help of my religious school friends to build an Israeli dodge ball (Ga-Ga) court at my temple. I knew how much fun the game was from my many summers playing it at Jewish summer camps.
As I continued through Confirmation and Post-Confirmation classes, I became more committed to my faith and wanted to continue to give back to the Jewish community. In high school I worked as a counselor at the Jewish Federation’s Camp Gan Shalom. I took great pride in teaching a new generation of campers Jewish traditions in a fun and interactive environment. I was especially proud to teach them the joy of Ga-Ga, on a court my friends and I had built.
My commitment to Judaism and resolve to serve in the military was shaped by my experiences growing up in the San Gabriel Valley. I’m currently in my third year of Army ROTC, in a leadership position in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University, and Vice-President of the Hillel Center. Recently, I earned jump wings and the title “paratrooper” after completing Army Airborne School. When I graduate, I will be commissioned as an Army officer, just like my dad.
In my short time in the Corps of Cadets and the Army, I have had some fantastic Jewish experiences. I have had the privilege to attend and coordinate Jewish Warrior Weekend Shabbatons at West Point and at Texas A&M Hillel. These events bring together Jewish cadets from across the country. This year I hope to travel to Israel on a Birthright trip with other cadets. Through these events we strive to build a stronger Jewish community within the military.
It’s been said that there is no such thing as an Atheist in a foxhole. One doesn’t need to be in combat to understand the comfort that prayer can bring during times of potential danger. Before my first jump at Airborne School, I looked around the cramped airplane. My buddies and I were bundled up in our parachute harnesses. As the doors opened and the wind rushed in, I noticed everyone worshiping different Gods in different ways. If that doesn’t illustrate the beauty of the freedom of religion, I don’t know what does.
The best Jewish experience I have had in the Army was while at summer training at Fort Knox in Kentucky. The chaplain pulled the three Jewish cadets out of our training time to have a little Shabbat service in the woods. Though he wasn’t Jewish, he got us everything we needed; a dinner roll, juice box, and two flashlights. This small gesture by the chaplain taught me how special moments like this are. I felt closer to the Jewish community than ever before…and I was welcomed into it by a non-Jew.
In the military, we’re blessed with chaplains who go the extra mile to make sure Jewish soldiers are taken care of. Just like the one who made sure my dad was at my Bar Mitzvah and the one who kept Shabbat with me during a field exercise. But there is one thing they cannot help with: the distraction of worrying about how our families are being treated by the secular and religious communities back home. Military families sacrifice a lot to ensure we can freely practice our faith. I believe that the Jewish community especially should be thankful for that. As we know from history, our freedom to be openly Jewish is not something we can take for granted.
Despite all of the challenges we have faced, my family is resilient. The fears I imagined during my Bar Mitzvah did not come true. My dad came home from Iraq and we went to Shabbat together again. But other military families were not so lucky. For some, their loved one didn’t come back whole. For others, the flag-draped casket they saw was not part of a protest, it was their reality.
As I write this article, my dad is deployed in Afghanistan. I may be called to a similar mission in a foreign land in the years to come. As Hillel said,
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Yet if I am only for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, when?”
Douglas Mendelsohn is a Junior at Texas A&M University pursuing a degree in Political Science with a minor in Military Studies. Upon graduation Doug will commission through Army ROTC as Second Lieutenant. The grandson of an Air Force officer and the son of an Army officer, he is profoundly proud of his Jewish heritage
and his family’s history of military service.