Jewish Military Families Experience the Gift of Jewish Community

Sarah with her husband and 4 children.

By Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, Ph.D.

Once again last year, Mindy, her husband, and their young son moved – this time to Washington State, where Lyle serves as a submariner in the U.S. Navy. Cross-country moves are difficult. Getting settled, connecting with others in a new community, and making friends are painfully hard – especially during a pandemic. Yet Mindy reflects on this move with the same “can do” attitude she applies to most challenges, but she acknowledges that the military way of life, where three years in one location feels like a long time, can be particularly difficult when you are Jewish. “You are already part of a unique American culture, and when you add being Jewish to the mix, it can feel especially isolating.”

Mindy is not alone in balancing Jewish life and military life, however.

Lyle is one of 10,000 Jews on active duty in all branches of the U.S. armed forces, and Mindy and their son are among 15,000 family members – dependents, partners, and children – who experience military life alongside them, whether that means extended deployments away from home for the whole family or time at home while loved ones serve in faraway lands. Not included in these figures are Jewish families in which service members are of other faiths or of no faith at all.

Shortly after she and her family arrived on the west coast, Mindy put her natural tendency to connect people to work as a parent-ambassador, a paid professional that’s part of a new partnership between JWB Jewish Chaplains Council®, a signature program of JCC Association of North America, and PJ Library, an initiative of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the leading organization in outreach to Jewish families. With help from PJ Library and the nearest Jewish Community Center, the Stroum JCC of Greater Seattle on Mercer Island, Washington, where staff are well versed in how best to engage families – and eager to help her – Mindy’s now busy connecting Kitsap County’s Jewish families with young children in the military to each other and building Jewish life for her own family and all those with whom she’s networking in her new community.

PJ Library’s low-barrier, welcoming approach often begins with the gift of a book and grows into vibrant communities of families that celebrate holidays and milestones together, seek out and share advice, and provide support and care to each other. It’s a winning formula – especially in the face of challenges commonly experienced in Jewish military families with young children – and thanks to a grant from PJ Library awarded last summer, JWB is piloting the parent-ambassador model in five military communities around the country to reach these families in new and relevant ways.

Nearly 1,700 miles east of Washington State’s Kitsap County and two hours from Kansas City, the closest center of Jewish life, Fort Riley, Kansas, is home to Sarah Margolis and where she fulfills her responsibilities as a parent-ambassador. She started in her role by contacting local families already subscribed to PJ Library’s long-established community for military families. Her outreach has been welcomed by these families, many of whom felt alone until she got in touch with them and who, like other Jewish Americans, are relating less to synagogues or military chapels, but still find meaning in living by Jewish values, celebrating holidays, and connecting with other Jews, as well as passing these traditions and rituals on to their children. Although Fort Riley has a Jewish chaplain on post, Sarah says, “Moms tell me they stopped looking for Jewish life in the military, presuming it wouldn’t be there, relying instead on their home rituals and distant family to provide connections to Jewish tradition.”

Now, with a small group of families preparing to celebrate Hanukkah together with an online craft and story time (because of the COVID-19 pandemic), Sarah is ready to branch out and find new families to join their community. She has established a Facebook page and reached out to the family readiness team in charge of seasonal programming on post. Thanks to her efforts, the word about Jewish programming for families with young children is getting out on Fort Riley – so much so, in fact, that two families associated with the post recently subscribed to PJ Library.

Although each of the five pilot communities (Pima County, Arizona; San Diego, California; Fort Riley, Kansas; San Antonio, Texas; and Kitsap County, Washington) presents its own challenges and opportunities, complicated by the limitations placed on social gatherings by the ongoing pandemic, JWB and PJ Library, through this partnership, are proud to play a role in ensuring that the Jewish families most dedicated to serving our country also can build and experience meaningful Jewish life in community with other Jewish military families.

Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, Ph.D., is director of operations for JWB Jewish Chaplains Council®, a JCC Association signature program. She previously served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a chaplain.