From North Shore to West Point: A Journey Worth Admiring

Somehow I missed it the first time I read that day’s New York Times. I would have expected the five-column headline, “Teenager Makes First Ever Charge from a Yeshiva to West Point” to catch my eye.  Fortunately, someone called my attention to the article about Rachelle David in the Times of April 28th while I still had that issue within easy reach.

Rachelle David is a senior at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School, a co-ed yeshiva high school in Great Neck, New York. She is about to become the first female yeshiva high school graduate to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. The story, once broken by the Times, was widely reported in the media and has been the subject of considerable attention in the blogosphere.

The Times story as it initially appeared in the paper’s print edition described Ms. David as “the only graduate of an Orthodox yeshiva, male or female, to attend West Point,” but apparently that was an exaggeration. The Times published a correction when it learned that a male graduate of Ramaz, a coed yeshiva high school in Manhattan’s upper east side, had graduated from West Point in 1971. Since then, two additional yeshiva-high-school-to-West-Point alums have surfaced, both of them male. There has been no challenge to the assertion that Ms. David will be the first female yeshiva high school graduate to attend West Point.

The bulk of the Times article was devoted to a summary of Ms. David’s accomplishments to date, which are impressive.  It was not her academic and extracurricular achievements, however, that made Ms. David newsworthy, but rather her choice of school and career.  For me, as for most American Jews of my generation and younger, military service is essentially an abstract concept.  The all-volunteer armed forces — which replaced the draft when the Vietnam debacle made continued conscription politically untenable — has largely become a professional military that is increasingly remote from much of the civilian population.  Except for a few rabbinic friends or acquaintances who have served as military chaplains, I have to stretch pretty far to identify anyone whom  I have known who has served in the post-draft armed forces: a couple of distant relatives, a neighbor when I was growing up,  a woman from my former shul whom I knew when she was a teenager; a boy from my high school graduating class who went to West Point.  The Times article quotes Dr. Daniel J. Vitow, the headmaster of North Shore (Ms. David’s yeshiva high school), who summed up what I’m sure many Jewish readers were thinking:

The military is not what Jewish mothers want for their children.  The stereotypical Jewish mother wants a doctor, a lawyer, and accountant, not an army general.

I might have worded it differently, but Dr. Vitow’s  basic point strikes me as unexceptionable. Mikey Weinstein, however, a Daily Kos blogger whose profile identifies him as the founder and president of something called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, was greatly offended – not only by Dr. Vitow’s quote but by the Times story as a whole.

In his post on the subject, which he entitles “NYT Story on Orthodox Jewish Girl at West Point is Inaccurate and Insulting,” Weinstein acknowledges that the Times story “may have been published with the most sterling intent,” but he condemns it for what he calls

numerous biases, disgusting insinuations, and implicitly discriminatory assumptions that play to age-old, terribly hurtful stereotypes about the Jewish people.

Dr. Vitow’s quote, according to Weinstein, displays a “cringe-inducing, nauseating and obnoxious bias.” The Times story as a whole, he insists, with its

absurdly and blatantly bigoted suggestion of Jewish anti-military aversion [can] be interpreted as an ignominious insult to the 80 Jewish cadets presently training their hearts out at West Point, but it’s also  a contemptible slap in the face of the 630 Jewish-Americans who have graduated from the academy.

Weinstein then launches into a rambling denunciation of the military’s treatment of religious minorities. There may be a valid point in there somewhere, but you’d have to dig through an awful lot of rhetorical detritus to find it.  When it comes to the story on Rachelle David, Weinstein is so busy being offended that he appears to have completely missed the central point.  What makes the Rachelle David story newsworthy is not the fact that a Jew is going to West Point, but rather that a yeshiva high school graduate — and a female one, no less — is going to West Point. The former, to use a well-worn cliché about newsworthiness, is an example of dog-bites-man; the latter is an example of man-bites-dog.

That distinction is apparently lost on Weinstein, but it’s critical for the rest of us.  While it would be naïve to assume that anti-Semitic attitudes have completely disappeared in this country,  it should be clear that the mere fact of Jewishness is no longer a serious obstacle to advancement in almost any field of endeavor.  American Jews have held elective office at every level except the Presidency.  They have served as Cabinet members and senior White House advisors, and they currently hold three of the nine seats on the Supreme Court.  They have run law firms and investment banks, Ivy League universities and Fortune 500 corporations.  No doubt there are still occasional instances of anti-Jewish discrimination — America is a large and diverse country, after all — but they are isolated exceptions to the undeniable trend.

But while employment discrimination against Jews qua Jews may no longer be a serious problem, the same cannot be said for the employment prospects of observant Jews.  Substantial progress has been made in many fields, to be sure, helped along by some particularly high profile examples (the most prominent of whom, you may recall, came within a few hundred Florida chads of becoming Vice President of the United States).  Nevertheless, in some professions, the observance of Shabbat, kashrut and Jewish holidays remains a significant career handicap.  The military, with its emphasis on unit cohesion and the chain of command, is a particularly challenging setting for minority religious observance. The Times story about Ms. David discusses kashrut observance at West Point, noting that there is no kosher food readily available  and explaining  that Ms. David “decided she could avoid prohibited  foods by sticking to a vegetarian diet.”

Limiting oneself to a vegetarian diet does not solve all kashrut issues, of course, but in some circumstances it may be the best you can do. By coincidence, on the same Shabbat that I was told of the article about Rachelle David, I came upon a handful of fellow congregants at Kiddush discussing kashrut standards.  Their conversation had been triggered by mention of yet another chumra (stringency) that one or another kashrut supervision agency had promulgated.  From there the conversation turned to the trend toward ever stricter kashrut standards.  Most of us could remember the days when eating some dairy foods in non-kosher restaurants was widely accepted in the Orthodox community.  Even today, Orthodox Jews who travel frequently on business sometimes feel impelled to relax their kashrut standards while traveling.

Such Orthodox business travelers don’t necessarily ask their rabbis for a heter  (permission) and would be unlikely to receive one if they did.  But they include many who are pillars of their communities, whose worldly success is a point of pride and whose generosity is essential to the functioning of many communal institutions. The compromises they make on the road is an open secret, an inconsistency that all concerned learn to live with because there often is no practical alternative.

The Times article leaves the precise level of Ms. David’s observance unclear.  It makes no mention of Shabbat observance, which is even harder to maintain in a military setting than kashrut.  The military does not operate on a five day work week,  and I suspect that the accommodations West Point would be willing to make for a new cadet would be extremely limited.  It’s unclear from the Times article — or from any other source I read — whether Ms.David intends to seek any such accommodations.

I’m not a rabbi, and nothing I write here is intended to be a definitive statement of the Halakha.  There is room for flexibility in halakhic decision-making, however, and  some contemporary poskim (authorities on Halakha) have addressed the conflict between halakhic observance and military necessity.  A military base, like a hospital, must operate 24/7, and the potentially life-saving nature of military operations can create wide parameters of permissibility.

Many aspects of this inherent conflict have been the subject of study and discussion in religious Zionist circles in Israel, where the potentially life-saving nature of the IDF’s work is harder to ignore.  If a Jewish state is to protect its citizens in this dangerous world, it must have an army.  If that army is to function effectively, it cannot completely close down one day each week, nor can it rely on non-Jewish soldiers to perform those tasks which ordinarily would be prohibited on Shabbat.

The issues involving military accommodation to the religious needs of observant Jewish soldiers have arisen here in the US as well, but with one potentially critical difference.  During World Wars I and II, and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, those observant Jews who may have sought religious accommodations had been drafted.  Since draftees, by definition, are not in the armed forces voluntarily, the circumstances that create the need to violate Halakha while there could well be subsumed under the rubric of ones (compulsion).  Once the involuntary nature of the military setting is established, particular issues may be addressed within the context of military necessity.

Where does that leave Jews like Ms. David, who voluntarily join the armed forces of a non-Jewish government?  Where military activities create a potentially life-threatening situation, the ordinary rules of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) would apply.  But does that heter extend to activities whose sole purpose is training — which would presumably include all of Ms. David’s activities during her time at West Point?

Many if not most halakhic Jews, I suspect, would instinctively assert that that there is no halakhic justification for voluntarily placing oneself in a professional situation in which violating Shabbat is inevitable.  There are some occupations — most  professional athletes, for example — that, in the current state of American society, may simply be out of reach.  Observant Jews must avoid such occupations, not because they are inherently problematic but because there is no practical avenue to pursue them without violating Halakha.

Is the American military such an occupation?  Again, I make no claim to be a halakhic authority of any kind, but I would have trouble accepting any approach that negated the legitimacy of voluntarily serving in the armed forces of a democratic country like the United States.  The same reasoning, after all, could be used to prohibit observant Jews from going to medical school.  All medical students know that sooner or later in the course of their training, they will be called upon to violate Shabbat in circumstances in which the link between their activities and actual pikuach nefesh is remote at best.  There must be some reason — other than the feared wrath of Jewish mothers everywhere — that medical school attendance has not generally been deemed impermissible.

Military service, it seems to me, has an equally strong claim.  If we acknowledge that in our conspicuously unredeemed world, a strong military is essential to the survival of the United States, and if we believe — as I think most of us do — that the world is much better off with a strong America than it would be with a weak one, then how could we justify a blanket preclusion of observant Jews from military service?  The bargain of Emancipation, we need to remind ourselves, was that Jews were entitled to be treated as full citizens of the countries in which they reside.  In return for the privileges of citizenship, they were required to perform the duties of citizenship, which included military service.

The elimination of the draft and America’s consequent reliance on an all-volunteer armed forces means that joining the military is a professional choice rather than a common experience, and it is a professional choice that the vast majority of American Jews won’t make.  But surely the exceptional few who do make that choice — perhaps out of a belief that it is the best way for them to utilize their talents in service to their country — deserve our respect and admiration.

It pays to remember, moreover, that the various occupational doors that have been opened to observant Jews in recent years did not open themselves.  Each milestone was the product of one or more trailblazers, individuals who made a particular occupational choice at a time when it was not clear whether that choice was feasible.  Some of these trailblazers may have been less meticulous in their observance than most halakhic Jews would find appropriate.  Some may have been unsuccessful in obtaining the accommodations they sought, while others may have felt compelled to make compromises that some of us would find problematic.  Without their efforts, however, the array of occupational choices available to observant Jews would be far narrower than it is.

Rachelle David is a highly accomplished young woman who no doubt had many opportunities open to her.  By choosing West Point, she is embarking on a challenging journey through mostly uncharted territory, a journey from which American Jewry as a whole is likely to benefit.  All who care about both the future of Judaism and the security of the United States should wish her hatzlakha rabah (much success).

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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