Heritage month ends, service to country continues

Story and photos by Sgt. David A. Scott
196th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Public Affairs

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — Every Friday night at the Gilbert Memorial Chapel at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, weekly Shabbat services are conducted, following traditions dating back to the earliest days of the Jewish religion.

Other Jewish holidays are recognized in theater as well. The Jewish festival of Passover was celebrated in nine locations in Iraq in 2010.  Fourteen Seder meals took place March 29 and March 30, ranging in size from three to 52 participants.

Although Jewish-American Heritage Month is not an official Department of Defense recognized ethnic month, every April the DoD sponsors a National Day of Remembrance Commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust, said Sgt. 1st Class Johnnie Mitchell, equal opportunity advisor with the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Sylvania, Ga., native.

“If Jewish American Heritage Month were to become an officially sponsored DoD commemoration, it would probably be well attended,” she said. “It would probably get an awesome turnout.”

“This past year, we have done all eight of the officially sponsored DoD ethnic heritage observances,” Mitchell said. “We usually have a large turnout; sometimes more than 250 people at a time.”

Although they represent a small percentage of American Veterans, Jewish-Americans have served in the defense of the United States for more than 355 years. 

The historical record of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, an institution chartered by Congress, suggests Jewish-American service to the United States predates the establishment of the U.S. Army by more than 100 years.

According to the NMAJH records, discrimination in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam prevented Jews from carrying out their militia duty, imposing taxes to pay for their replacements.

Asser Levy, a private citizen, filed petitions with the colonial court November 5, 1655, for permission to either stand watch with his fellow citizens or be relieved from having to pay the tax.  The courts agreed with Levy and he was allowed to fully participate in the defense of the stockade of New Amsterdam, which later became the state of New York.

NMAJH records give many examples in Army history of the service of Jewish-American Soldiers, from the Civil War through today, including 15 Medals of Honor being awarded to Jewish American service members.

Despite this documented history, a heritage month for Jewish-Americans is a relatively new concept.  The very first Jewish-American Heritage Month celebration was designated in May 2006 by former President George W. Bush.

In April 2010, President Obama declared May 2010 as Jewish American Heritage Month.  In his proclamation, he said Jewish Americans have successfully become a part of the American fabric while at the same time maintaining their traditions and heritage.

“The Jewish-American story is an essential chapter of the American narrative,” he said. “It is one of refuge from persecution; of commitment to service, faith, democracy, and peace; and of tireless work to achieve success. As leaders in every facet of American life — from athletics, entertainment, and the arts to academia, business, government and our armed forces —Jewish-Americans have shaped our nation and helped steer the course of history.”

Many Jewish-American Soldiers at JBB find it possible to attend worship at most Shabbats, even in the relatively austere environment of the Gilbert Memorial Chapel.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael S. Fischer, an information technology specialist with the 38th Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force 38, 38th Infantry Division, and a Franklin, Ind., native, serves as an assistant lay leader for the Jewish community at JBB.

Fischer bakes the unleavened Challah, a traditional Jewish bread, on the day of the Shabbat using raw materials from donations supplied by the Jewish community in the United States.

“All of these Shabbat rituals are about following in the tradition of what has been there for thousands of years” he said.

Fischer said the 38th CAB has been very understanding and supportive of his need for time to worship on Friday evenings.  In conversations with his supervisors, the topic of accommodating Fischer’s weekly day for rest and recuperation came up.

“My unit asked me when I wanted my reset day,” Fischer said. “They have been inquisitive, which is very understandable.”

Fischer said the religious and ethnic diversity in the Army roughly approximates the diverse experiences of his youth.

Fischer lived in Detroit, Baton Rouge, La., and Los Angeles County, Calif., as a youngster and saw segregation and discrimination first hand, he said.

Prejudice is an old way of looking at the world, he said.

“Far too often, people are locked into their concept of the way things were,” Fischer said. “The differences are there but in the end, people are people.  I see you for who you are.”

A deployment by a National Guard or Reserve unit is a major change in lifestyle for those who are called to duty, Fischer said.

“Deployments tend to be a change in rituals,” he said. “It depends on the individuals involved.  For most people, it is a time of growth.”

Maj. Anthony F. Beatman, executive officer with the 118th Multifunctional Medical Battalion, 1st Medical Brigade, and a West Hartford, Conn., native, serves as one of the primary lay leaders for the Jewish community at JBB and said the Jewish-American experience in the United States normally takes place in small communities.

“Because there are so few Jewish people, usually they are pretty close knit,” he said.  “Most people know each other. There were a decent amount of Jewish people in my neighborhood, but the majority was non-Jewish.”

Beatman, a fifteen-year Veteran of the National Guard, said his religious practices have been accommodated on this deployment.

Although Jewish American Heritage Month for 2010 has officially ended, the legacy formed from the patriotic service of Jewish men and women in the pursuit of freedom and fairness for all continues.

 

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Hanukkah greetings to U.S. service members, made by a Jewish elementary school in the United States, are displayed at evening Shabbat services in the Gilbert Memorial Chapel at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, May 14 during a Jewish-American Heritage Month celebration. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David A. Scott)

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A festive covering, known as a Challah cover, is used to protect the leavened bread or Manna, prior to consumption at an evening Shabbat service May 14 during a Jewish-American Heritage Month celebration. Manna is mixed using ingredients donated by members of the American Jewish community and then freshly baked before each weekly observance of the Jewish faith in the Gilbert Memorial Chapel at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David A. Scott)

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Sgt. 1st Class Michael S. Fischer, an information technology specialist with the 38th Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force 38, 38th Infantry Division, and a Franklin, Ind., native, removes a decorative covering from a Sefer Torah May 14 prior to evening Shabbat service during a May 2010 Jewish-American Heritage Month celebration in the Gilbert Memorial Chapel at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David A. Scott)

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Sgt. 1st Class Michael S. Fischer, an information technology specialist with the 38th Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force 38, 38th Infantry Division, and a Franklin, Ind., native, prepares to use a Yad to read a passage from a Sefer Torah May 14 prior to evening Shabbat service during a May 2010 Jewish-American Heritage Month celebration in the Gilbert Memorial Chapel at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David A. Scott)

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A Sefer Torah, handwritten on authentic animal parchment, is displayed prior to evening Shabbat service May 14 during a Jewish-American Heritage Month celebration in the Gilbert Memorial Chapel at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David A. Scott)