As the holiday season approaches, and we begin to prepare our homes and schedules for upcoming events, it is important that we take the time to celebrate the diversity of our military families. Though the U.S. Armed Forces is predominantly made up of service members who identify as Christian, nearly every religion, creed, or conviction is represented under our stars and stripes. In the spirit of celebration and inclusivity, we’re delighted to have had the opportunity to connect with a number of military families to discuss their Jewish faith, holidays and ways they fold tradition into their military lives.
Though Hanukkah is one of the more well-known holidays many people are surprised to learn that it isn’t the most important. Jewish families often observe a weekly day of rest, known as Shabbat, starting at sundown on Friday evenings. The Jewish New Year is celebrated with the high holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Navy Cmdr. Marques “Dr. Dreidel” Jackson and his wife, Amber, gave us insight on some of the traditions they practice at home, in communities and while deployed.
“On Rosh Hashanah,” stated Amber, “we are welcoming the New Year and we celebrate with apples and honey which represent a sweet new year and a round challah symbolizing the circularity of the seasons and the earth. On Yom Kippur we reflect on the past year and ask forgiveness from God.”
For Hanukkah, the Jackson’s light candles for eight nights, say blessings, exchange gifts, play dreidel and eat traditional foods including potato latkes and jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot.
Erica Westmoreland, an Army spouse, enjoys making donuts with her family and delivering them to friends.
“Cooking and eating foods fried in oil reminds us of the miracle of Hanukkah, we use the same family recipe for sufganiyot every year,” she said.
Purim is another holiday that is often celebrated by Jewish families, celebrating the survival of the Jews who had been marked for death by Persian rulers in the fifth century. The Jackson’s celebrate Purim by hosting a kid party, reading the Book of Esther, sharing food and performing acts of kindness.
“People wear costumes and there is a traditional cookie we make called hamantaschen,” she said.
Marques explained that while deployed, “Purim was made special by the distribution of Purim care packages from several Jewish charities that included megillat and hamantaschen.”
Passover is the final major holiday that Jewish families celebrate. When Marques was deployed in 2009 and 2010, he missed a number of holidays.
“While being away from family is always hard, it is especially difficult during the holidays. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower made Passover special during those two cruises by flying a Rabbi out to the carrier to perform the Seder service, preparing a special Sedar meal served in the wardroom and supplying Passover compliant MREs,” he said.
Marques noted that these special MREs were provided by several Jewish charities. He also noted that Amber would send Passover compliant mandel bread from home.
“Being different in a largely homogenous organization is often challenging but can provide perks,” Marques stated.
One of the biggest challenges, Marques noted, was the time and effort required to explain things.
“This is an exhausting, but necessary part of being an outlier.”
Additionally, certain events like Christmas parties and Easter egg hunts can emphasize differences, but Marques was quick to point out that sometimes differences can have benefits.
“Some of the benefits I have experienced are not having duty on Shabbat, wine on deployment and Purim care packages. Despite the challenges, being different in a homogenous organization can be fun.”
“While the military is predominantly Christian, so is the U.S. in general,” Amber noted.
“At times it can seem somewhat isolating, but at the same time, it also brings people together. When you find other Jews, there is often a bond that forms quickly. We are good friends with several Jewish members of the military.”
“Likewise,” she continued, “we feel blessed that our non-Jewish friends help us celebrate when in remote areas that are lacking much of a Jewish community. In fact, we hosted Purim and Hanukkah parties where we were actually the only Jews. We were able to share our Jewish traditions with numerous military friends over the years and teach them a bit about Judaism while they helped us to carry out our traditions.”
Amber concluded, “Mutual respect and appreciation made all the difference.”