By Daniel Sieradski/Jewsweek.com
Are you a Jewish soldier serving in Uncle Sam's band of jolly green giants? Second Lieutenant Jason Rubin, USMC, wants to help you keep kosher and have a nice place for Shabbat. [Rubin is a former president of Hillel and AEPi at Virginia Tech who won Hillel's Philip and Susan Rudd Cohen Student Exemplar of Excellence Award in 2001.]
His new Web site, Jews In Green, provides innumerable resources for Jewish soldiers in the US military. Jewsweek's Dan Sieradski caught up with the 28-year-old Rubin for a recent chat.
When did you enlist in the service? Seen any combat? Got any decorations?
September 12, 1994, right out of high school. I have not seen combat. I served as an embassy guard in Russia, Trinidad, Korea and Brazil. I have a number of decorations, but nothing sexy (like a bronze star). Right now I'm in flight school.
What made you decide to join the Marine Corps?
I always intended on going to college, but I wanted to get out and experience the world for a little while first. At the time, I felt burnt out with school and probably would have done real poorly that first year.
I had always been interested in the military, and I decided that if I was going to join a service I should pick the best (or at least the most challenging). My parents were not too happy about that, but they were supportive all the way. Now that I've done all that I have I think they are very proud.
Have you always been involved Jewishly? What's your background?
Growing up I was raised in a Reform household. I went to Hebrew and religious school when I was very young, but stopped attending shortly after my parents were divorced. I always felt a relatively strong Jewish identity, but as time passed, I was not very observant. It wasn't until I joined the Marine Corps that I started to "reclaim" my Judaism.
When I was accepted for a commissioning program, the Marine Corps sent me to college. This was the first time I really had an outlet for my Judaism. I became really involved in Hillel at Virginia Tech and eventually became the president. I helped form the chapter of AEPi there (the Jewish fraternity) and served as its first president.
More importantly, I started to get back in touch with my Judaism. I started studying Hebrew again, I made a trip to Israel, and I started keeping kosher. It culminated in 2001, with me having my bar mitzvah at age 25. I never had a ceremony growing up, so I studied with a professor and an Israeli friend and we made a big deal out of it.
I met my wife at school and we both have become more observant since then. If we had to align with any movement, it would be Conservative, but we are not big fans of titles and movements.
It's often said that nice Jewish boys don't join the Marine Corps. What drove you to reconnect with your Judaism once you joined the service?
There are actually plenty of nice Jewish boys in the Marine Corps. It's a common misconception that is being disproved more and more each day on my Web site.
Becoming a marine and enduring the hardships associated with that brought me more in touch with my spiritual side. It's kind of that, "there's no atheists in a foxhole" type thing. The only problem was that my resources for Jewish outlets were severely limited in the Marine Corps. Sometimes, just the fact that it was difficult to practice Judaism in the Marine Corps, it made me even more determined to do so. One time I made my own matzah (surely not kosher by any remotely strict standards) just because I found it impossible to get any while stationed overseas.
What are some of the limitations you found?
Admittedly, a lot of the limitations I ran into were due to my own ignorance. Oftentimes, I could have gotten things I needed (like matzah) if I just knew that there were resources out there. My hope is that Jews In Green will help those young marines, sailors, soldiers, and airmen that don't know any better.
What's some basic advice you could offer Jews in the service?
First off, any Jewish service member should find the nearest Jewish chaplain in his or her area. Oftentimes, commanders just don't understand the needs of Jews and young service members are too intimidated to say what needs to be said -- not because of any hostile atmosphere, just that as a private, you are sometimes scared to go tell the gunny that you need something out of the ordinary. A chaplain knows exactly who to talk to and is used to dealing with these situations.
Like, "Hey 'Sarge,' uh, where can I get some challah bread?"
Yeah, but the "Sarge" would have no clue what you are talking about. That's another thing I want to help with. I'm trying to compile a list of kosher/Jewish resources at bases around the globe. A more realistic situation might be, "Hey, Sergeant, I need to arrange to get kosher MREs for our next field exercise." Most marines have no idea how to go about doing that, and sometimes that can be seen as someone trying to get special treatment (which is not looked kindly upon by your peers or superiors). It doesn't make things any easier when a lot of people just don't have the slightest understanding of what keeping kosher entails.
Something else is holidays. If you ask far enough in advance, you can usually get off for Jewish holidays, but again, most young service members are worried about asking, and most don't have a clue of where they can go for such services.
The problem is that many Jews who join the military are not ultra-observant to begin with, simply because the compromises one has to make, so when you add additional pressures (from peers and superiors) to conform, it could be easy for some to all but abandon their Judaism.
So how will Jews In Green help alleviate this problem?
Well, first off, just by reading the stories of other Jews serving, the current and future Jewish service members will see that they aren't alone and that being observant in the service is not so hard. By making a discussion forum available, I also hope that Jews that are serving can share their own stories and even meet up with other Jews on their base or in the area.
My wife, and other spouses who have written me, want to start writing articles about information for military spouses: Things like education resources or job opportunities in the Jewish community.
The list of Jewish services available at each base will help out a lot too. When relocating or choosing where their next duty station will be, Jewish service members can find all the pertinent information in one place. This includes synagogues, kosher shopping, and kosher restaurants.
Additionally, I try to keep readers updated on any and all resources available to them -- from Passover kits, to kosher MREs, to special events at various bases.
Another motivation for the Web site is that it serves to show the rest of the world that Jews are serving proudly in the armed forces. A lot of the comments I've gotten about the Web site have been about this.
How has the reaction to the site been so far?
It's been great. I've heard from active duty, retired, and future service members about how much they enjoy the site. I even received an e-mail from a colonel in Kuwait, offering to assist with the site.
A lot of the traffic is by word of mouth, so a lot of times it will come in spurts, but I am often surprised at how many people have visited the site and written me about it.
A lot of organizations have been helpful to, like the Jewish Welfare Board, and the Jewish War Veterans.
One of the common myths civilians hear about the Marine Corps is that there are a lot of racists within the ranks there. Have you ever had any anti-Semitic experiences in the Corps?
Nothing blatant or threatening. I don't "look Jewish," so I've been present when some inappropriate comments have been made, but I've always set [the person who made the comment] straight. These days if anyone makes any racist or anti-Semitic comments in a remotely threatening way in the Marine Corps, they will be severely punished. I'm sure it's the same in other services as well. Most of the time it is just ignorant people making stupid comments.
Do your commanding officers ever talk about the U.S. alliance with Israel?
Not really. I was actually hoping to run into an Israeli pilot here at school. We train a lot of foreign officers and there have been plenty of Israelis that have come here. The funny thing is that there are a bunch of Saudis here too. I love to flaunt the fact that I'm Jewish with them.
Believe it or not, us military folks don't talk too much about politics at work. Plenty at home, but that's another story. In officer training, they did use some examples from the '67 war for tactics. That was real cool. I got to answer a lot of questions that day.
Do you study Israeli military history?
Me, personally? Not particularly, but just from my intense interest in Israel, I seem to know more than the average Joe. If you mean the military in general, it is ironic, because we tend to study a lot of German tactics. In all fairness, German military tactics were ahead of their time. The time to worry is when our political leaders begin to study their political leaders.
I'm reading The Brigade right now. It's about the Jewish Brigade the Brits started in WWII. Great book. It may be wrong, but I feel incredible satisfaction from reading about Jewish soldiers killing Nazis.
Copyright 2001-2003 Jewsweek Magazine All rights reserved