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Maintaining Jewish Roots in the Military

Wednesday, May 01, 2013 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

Although there are many themes to Alison Buckholtz’s book, Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War, one that stands out is the importance she places on her Jewish faith. She and her family relocated to the small town of Anacortes, Washington after her husband began a three-year assignment. She gives poignant examples on how Judaism helped her endure the hardships faced while her Navy husband, Scott, was deployed overseas.

The most heart-felt scenes involve her discussion on how she tried to instill the Jewish faith in her two young children, Ethan and Esther. The author explained that as a mom she faced challenges of being Jewish in a predominantly Christian military since proportionally there are far less Jewish members in the military than in the general population. She said in our interview, “I was concerned when I heard we were going to move to a remote area. How could I instill in my children Jewish traditions and values? Everything I had growing up, a Jewish education and time spent in Israel, did not leave me qualified to teach my children Jewish education. I was hoping to depend on Jewish organizations for that.”

The author devoted a whole chapter in the book on how she came to grips with living in Anacortes, Washington, while trying to maintain her Jewish roots. She writes, “Judaism is a religion that greatly values community, and none of us wanted to go it alone.” When she found out that the closest synagogue was a three hour round trip, she telephoned the chaplain’s office, hoping they had some ideas. To her horror, she was given the name of a Messianic synagogue. Alison noted, “I later learned that messianic Jews are attempting to infiltrate the military in order to target Jewish personnel for evangelization. My head exploded when I found that out and realized that Jews, like myself, who called the base for help were directed to this organization whose primary goal was to convert them to Christianity.” Through her efforts, the Navy chaplain on the base responded with a sense of urgency, striking the contact from the reference list.

Unfortunately, her problems of wanting to instill a Jewish identity in her children were not solved, and eventually Scott, Esther, Ethan, and Alison had to go it alone.They made the Jewish holidays special, which included finding a place to pray on a remote trail. As for the children, she improvised by using DVDs and CDs to teach them about their Jewish history. The Chabad representatives, closest to where the family lived, helped out, including reading the Megillah on base during the Purim holiday.

Her tenacity never stopped as she continued to search for other families with whom she could share the holidays. Eventually, a group was formed with Alison as the "CEO," organizing the Hanukkah Party, the Passover Seder, and making sure that all the families would convene for every major Jewish holiday.

What is especially poignant for any Jewish American reading this story is the blending of her experiences with her Jewish identity, many times with humor. For example, she wrote in the book, “I found it hard to believe we would have a snowy Passover; that kind of thing just doesn’t happen to desert people.”

In Standing By, Buckholtz also intertwines military life with her Jewish values. Unfortunately the War on Terror does not stop, even for solemn holidays such as Yom Kippur. As Scott left on Yom Kippur morning, Alison opened her prayer book and turned to the Unetaneh Tokef, a religious poem whose verses included “Who shall live and who shall die…who by water and who by fire.” She commented that her immediate thoughts were that Scott must fly jets on and off aircraft carriers and that phrase “sounded unthinkably cruel.”

She also writes about an incident, relating the American flag to a prayer book. “Then, one day, the heavens poured. I looked out from my bedroom window and saw the flag, soaked and heavy, drooping in the rain. I felt disrespectful, even guilty, as if I had left a prayer book outside.”

During our interview she reflected on how Judaism became relevant in her life, especially during Scott’s deployments. For her, it brought the traditions into the current day. There is a powerful passage in the book where she discusses the grief of separation and turns to her marriage contract, the ketubah for strength, “At the end of the long road…she saw him standing, waiting, for her, watching for her through the night.”

Further, she discusses the importance of a mitzvah. Alison writes, “A rabbi told me once that it’s critical to take care with small good deeds as with obviously important big ones.” She did that by performing a mitzvah, organizing fellow military spouses to report for duty, to come together to help and support one another. Alison felt a part of a team, a mitzvah committee, which performed their magic of kindness for that person in need.

Standing By, coming in paperback tomorrow, is a powerful book that shows how Buckholtz attempted to lead a normal Jewish life in a very abnormal situation. She stated in the interview, “A lot of times I turned to my Jewish values and experiences for comfort. In the midst of being surrounded by unfamiliarity it helped to bring back home something that was part of me.” Readers will understand her pressures, joys, rewards, and stresses, as she attempted to maintain a Jewish identity for herself and her family while living in a military setting.

Related: A Chanukah visit to the White House with Alison Buckholtz

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.