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How I became Jewish … again

I was secular, uninvolved in Judaism and had married a non-Jew. Then I enlisted in the US army and discovered Shabbat

We religious liberals have to take a journey from skepticism to some form of belief and adherence to our Jewish faith. If we cannot accept an interventionist God or cannot believe that Moses actually communicated with the Deity at Sinai, how can we define a path to Judaism? Particularly in America, land of the free, where the pressure for religious conformity is weak.

I was raised in a Reform home where my parents regularly attended services. I had a bar mitzvah and confirmation with a few extra years of religious high school thrown in. So, during college and law school, I did do the High Holidays and Pesach.

But I cannot say Judaism was a major part of my life. I had married a non Jewish woman at age 21. We had met when I was 17 and had discussions of how to raise children before we became engaged but we married and are still married 51 years later. Our early life together was typical of secular young marrieds. Religious belief had a minimal role.

Then I enlisted in the United State Army Reserves after narrowly missing being drafted for Vietnam. When time came to serve my four months of active duty in 1971, a strange series of events occurred. I had arrived for basic training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, and was advised that Jewish troops could avoid training on Saturdays if they told their company commander they wanted to attend Sabbath services. So like any true American skeptic, I decided even attending services beat doing pushups for a drill sergeant or marching in the South Carolina summer wearing a pack and toting a rifle. I wish I could make this sudden interest in Shacharit sound nobler, but it is what it is. זה מה יש.

There were not many Jewish troops in Fort Jackson. We had a small band attending services. We did not even merit a chaplain, so a chaplain’s assistant with a beautiful voice, Perry Gethner served as our religious leader. Our prayer book was the standard Army Reconservadox Jewish military edition.

Somehow, services suddenly became an intense religious experience unmatched in my prior life. Shabbat has a wholly different meaning in the milieu of army basic training. Unlike American suburban living, military training is not comfortable. Forced marches in a South Carolina summer means carrying a rifle and pack, in extreme humidity, with drill sergeants screaming at us to do double time, plus push ups with us shouting back, more PT drill sergeant more PT, the more we get the more we want. We shot at Viet Cong silhouette targets in rifle training and learned how to throw a grenade like a quarterback tossing a football. The most relaxing part of the day was cleaning one’s M16 in the late afternoon. Contrast that with Shabbat Shacharit, helping to lead the services with my Jewish brothers in arms, chanting all the beautiful prayers. I felt Judaism to my core. This emotionally overwhelming experience went on week after week, during the two months of basic training, and my two months of subsequent advanced training as a radio operator.

There were amusing moments. During the High Holidays we actually did have a full chaplain. The services were very long. But he reminded us, so what else are you going to do today. True. So we prayed all day.

Culinary Judaism was not ignored. We did have morning services on Sunday along with everyone else. Whoever had a weekend pass had the obligation to buy bagels for our Sunday repast. I once filled an airplane with the reek of three dozen garlic and onion bagels and bialys fresh from my favorite Queens bakery.

This experience changed me. After it, I could no longer be a pure secular Jew. It took awhile, but I finally joined a synagogue and began an actual Jewish journey. I read Maimonides, eventually Spinoza, Soloveitchik, Baeck, Heschel, Buber, etc. My wife and I made the decision to educate our children in the Jewish faith and have them become Bar Mitzvah in the Reform movement. I write now on the evening after Rosh Hashanah, having experienced the joy of singing in our choir, despite needing voice lessons to catch up. My ninth trip to Israel comes next month, and I have been taking Hebrew lessons for several years. I have served as an officer of Har Sinai Temple in Pennington NJ, and become active in the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

I could never accept Orthodoxy because it insists on the literal truth of revelation, in which I cannot believe. I do not keep kosher. I continue to grapple with the spiritual impact of the early death of my father years ago and the autism that affects my oldest son, soon to turn 45. History does not reveal to me any pattern of Divine support.

But the Army experience has stayed with me always. Isra-el, arguing, wrestling with God, has been part of my life since then. Somehow that experience led to some concept of the divine, with has become essential to me during the 50 plus years since my active military service. The arc of my existence has bent towards Judaism as a result of that long ago very intense immersion as a young soldier.

About the Author
Peter Buchsbaum is a graduate of Cornell University and Harvard Law School. He clerked for Joseph Weintraub, Chief Justice of NJ and served as a Judge of the NJ Superior Court from 2004 to 2013 after a career as prominent municipal land use lawyer. Peter was listed in Who's Who in America for 25 years. Today, he sits on the Board of Trustees for Har Sinai Temple in Pennington, NJ; and he is a co-founder of J-PLAN (the Jewish Pluralism Legal Action Network), which advocates for marriage equality in Israel.
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