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How to maintain Jewish identity on military service? Avoid the bacon, light a Chanukiah

UK servicemen and women discuss being Jewish in the Armed Forces

    Participants in the moral leadership weekend
    Participants in the moral leadership weekend

    There is a proud record of Jewish service in the British Armed Forces. More than 30,000 signed up to fight in the Second World War and a few hundred are taking on varied roles in today’s military.

    They are annually invited to a Jewish moral leadership course and families Shabbaton at the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre near Andover and 60 attended the latest get together.

    One challenge facing Jewish personnel is to not eat pork, according to Abi, who serves in the Navy. She used to avoid all meat. “But then I was stuck with the veggie options, which are just no good.”

    Senior Royal Artillery officer Major Yank adds: “In the old days I had to beg, steal and borrow from colleagues to make sure I avoided the pork rations. Nobody ever minded and it became a bit of a joke that I got to eat the best food.”

    Alexandra, who is with the Intelligence Corps Reserves, tried vegetarianism as a pragmatic solution. “When I was on basic training, one of the corporals found out and would rib me about it. After a while, I just said, ‘look, I’m not actually vegetarian. I’m Jewish’. He was really interested in it and even went out to get me a kosher meal — but came back with halal.”

    Attending synagogue is even more problematic, although not impossible. While on tour in the Mediterranean, Abi was able to go to shul in Crete. “I met some Israelis in the synagogue because we were doing a joint exercise with their army. A while later, I went over to Haifa and met the same guys. I had a cracking night out.”

    Army reservist Sergeant Dan Fox recalls observing Pesach while on tour in Afghanistan. “At the neighbouring American base, a US Marines Corps Jewish chaplain was having a Seder so I went along to it. But rather than taking turns for the Hagadah reading, I had to read the whole thing because they liked my accent so much.”

    Major Yank says his Jewishness has been the subject of colleagues’ banter. “Some of it is pretty vicious. But from the right people at the right time it’s fine. I’ve got some very close friends from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve been through thick and thin together so they can say pretty much say anything they like. It’s camaraderie and that’s really important in this line of work.”

    For Abi, “once people realise I’m Jewish, they soon get over the shock of never having met a Jew before and become really inquisitive. It means you end up having to represent the Jewish community as best you can.”

    She has started a tradition of lighting a Chanukiah every year on ship. “Even when I was on basic training, I did it because I was taught you always put the Chanukiah in the window to show the outside world you celebrate Chanukah.

    “This year I bought about 40 doughnuts and had the Chanukiah up in the mess area.”

    Alexandra enjoys the Shabbaton weekends, held under the direction of senior Jewish chaplain Rabbi Reuben Livingstone. “I feel like I don’t really have a Jewish community of my own at the moment. The Armed Forces Jewish community is my community now.”

    Her proudest moment as a Jewish servicewoman was participating in the Ajex parade.

    “Marching down Whitehall and standing at the Centotaph in my uniform with the band playing Adon Olam was a really proud moment.”

     

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