It is unquestionably true that, since 9/11, Americans have fundamentally and consciously changed the way they relate to veterans who have served in the military, and particularly those who are currently serving.
Baby boomers like me, who came of age during the Viet Nam war, actively protested it, and resorted often to extraordinary measures to avoid being drafted to fight in it, have come to understand what it means to fight for your country in a just cause. Men and women currently serving active duty are treated with the respect and gratitude that they deserve. What I have previously described in these pages as “the sin of my generation” – confusing the fighting force with the people making policy who send them off to war – is no longer common. No one in the uniform of his or her country should be subjected to the derision that characterized that unhappy time in our history, when members of the military were treated like the enemy. Particularly in an all-volunteer fighting force, waging a largely thankless war against an often-vicious enemy, it takes enormous courage to lay one’s life on the line for one’s country.
Some years ago, when members of my congregation serving in the Army were deployed to Iraq, I composed a prayer for America’s military, to be recited every Shabbat morning, as a means of expressing concern for their safety and support for their mission. When my own son-in-law entered the Navy as a chaplain and was deployed for a brief time to Afghanistan, the recitation of that prayer became even more meaningful for me personally. That feeling of solidarity and respect was only amplified when my wife and I spent time visiting him and our daughter in Okinawa, where they were based for three years. I began then to appreciate, for the first time, how very deep the love of country is that informs the lives of our men and women in uniform. It was humbling, to say the least, and it just reinforced in me the sense that, while America’s involvement in the Viet Nam were was tragic and misguided, the men and women who served there deserved so much better than they got.
Just this week, in a Hebrew High School class here in my synagogue, our students watched an excellent Israeli film titled “Beneath the Helmet,” a documentary that followed new recruits into the paratrooper division of the Israeli army through the first one hundred and eighty days of their (often grueling) training. It was both revealing and moving, as immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union joined with native-born Sabras to become a part of one the elite fighting forces in the world today.
Time and time again during those first one hundred and eighty days, the officers in charge of the training would ask the recruits why they were there, and what their purpose was. Why they were there, at least for the native born Israelis, was a simple question to answer. Military service in Israel is compulsory (except, sadly, for the ultra-Orthodox), and they were there because they had to be there. But what was particularly moving was watching them slowly begin to realize that the purpose of their service in the IDF was to protect the State of Israel and its citizens. As they held their newly issued weapons and looked out at the hills and valleys of the country they loved, they realized that they were what stood between the citizens of Israel and the legion of hostile armies that surrounded them. You could see them grow up before your eyes.
Identification with Israel’s fighting force runs deep in American Jewish community, at least in the more Zionist sectors of it. Many if not most American synagogues recite prayers for the State of Israel in the course of their regular Shabbat services, and a large number, out of an enhanced sense of pride and identification with Israel’s army, recite a special “Mishebeirach” (a prayer invoking God’s blessings) for the soldiers of the IDF. It is also true that many observant Jews recite a special “Harachaman” (a prayer, again, invoking God’s favor and protection) during the Grace After Meals for Israel’s military.
I don’t have any empirical evidence to back this up, but my sense is that our identification as a Jewish community with Israel’s military comes far more naturally to us than a sense of identification with America’s men and women in uniform. I suspect that might be because a good number of American Jewish families have sons and daughters who serve or have served in the Israeli army, either as new immigrants or as volunteers who do so to serve the Jewish state. That is all well and good, and certainly to be admired. It is probably true in this generation that most American Jews know far more people who are serving or have served in the IDF than they do American military personnel, Jewish or otherwise.
But as we marked Veterans Day this week, it occurred to me anew how wrong it is to pray for one and not the other. By all means, when reciting the Grace After Meals, we should say that Mishebeirach for Israel’s soldiers, and pray that God protect them. But we should feel no less obligated to pray for America’s military personnel, and pray for them as well. And any synagogue that recited a prayer for Israel’s military and Shabbat morning should recite one for America’s military as well. This is our country, and those brave men and women are fighting our fight in the far-flung reaches of a very hostile world. If you’d like a copy of the prayer that I’ve composed, feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com, and I’ll send you one. But it doesn’t have to be mine. What matters is that we pray for God to protect America’s fighting force as well as Israel’s, and we do so with a full heart.
I hope your observance of Veterans Day was meaningful.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.