I grew up in a small Jewish community, knowing few Jews outside of my own family. As such, I struggled with my Jewish identity, finding it difficult to fully embrace the traditions and culture that are a normal part of life for other Jewish people. I was expecting my connection to Judaism to become even more tenuous when I decided to attend the Virginia Military Institute intending to pursue a commission in the United States military, but, once there, I found something unexpected – on campus, and within me.
Let me start by taking you back to the start of freshman year. Nothing could prepare me for the harsh lifestyle of being a “Rat,” what we call freshmen at VMI. All first-year attendees are Rats, and their Brother Rats must be a part of the Ratline until a culminating event in February called “Breakout.” Until Breakout, they subject themselves to a whole codex of rules and punishments spelled out in a small booklet they must carry with them at all times, their “Rat Bible.”
The constant stress and training that Rats are put through is hard to put into words, but it begins on Matriculation Day with 10 ensuing days of “Hell Week.” This week, with its high attrition rate, has a sharp learning curve for all who manage to stay. Hell Week is full of screaming, lessons on the basics of being a Cadet and workouts of push-ups, bear crawls, sprints and buddy-carries.
I managed to push through until the last day of Hell Week, Rat Sunday, when we are given our final physical and military tests in a final event before classes begin, “The Crucible.” This day was also special because Rats are allowed to leave VMI’s campus to join their preferred religious communities for the afternoon. That is when I discovered there was a Hillel House at our neighboring university, Washington & Lee, that we can attend.
Hillel helped me endure the classwork, 20-mile road marches, disciplinary push-ups, shining uniform brass and the overall stress of being a Rat. There, I found a place of peace, my sanctuary. Even through the worst of weeks, I could struggle through to the end of the week and attend the Hillel House with the Jewish community of Lexington and my friends. Together my Brother Rats and I would do the blessings over the meal, enjoy a festive banquet and then relax in conversation with others.
Hillel has given me even more than relief from stress and the rigors of training. Hillel provided me with my senior mentor, or as they are called at VMI, my Dyke. (Let me clarify: Dyke is a very old military word, and they are called this for our dyke straps, a part of the parade uniform that is nearly impossible to assemble without the help of another. The Rat/Dyke relationship is a similar kind of symbiosis.)
My Dyke was a great friend and mentor. He helped bridge the large gap between Washington & Lee University and VMI and told me of my legacy. The first Jewish cadet at VMI was Moses Ezekiel, a well known American soldier and sculptor who was initially made famous by his heroics as a VMI Cadet at the 1864 Battle of New Market during the Civil War. What my Dyke revealed to me is that my lineage has been made up of Jewish cadets all the way back to Cadet Ezekiel, a tradition I must now carry on.
Together, Hillel and my Dyke enabled me to make it through my years at VMI. Looking back as a senior, I couldn’t have made it this far without them. Now, in my final year of academics, I have assumed the responsibility of being the Cadet-in-Charge of Jewish activities and mentoring a younger Jewish cadet in the spirit of our school’s tradition.
Perhaps, during his own adventures here, he will discover himself, just as I have.
David Pody is a member of the Class of 2017 at the Virginia Military Institute.