New Hillel ROTC Cohort seeks to give its “lone soldiers” a lasting community
Arielle Fishler (UT-Austin, 2023) and Sophia Bergen (Cornell University, 2023) know that being in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corp isn’t for the faint of heart. ROTC students wake up early multiple times a week to make a 6 a.m. start time. They have weekly training, sometimes overnight, in addition to the demands of their regular college schedule. The ROTC becomes doubly challenging for Jewish students, who often experience isolation during service. That’s why Fishler and Bergen readily agreed to spearhead a new ROTC cohort that brings together Jewish student members from all over the country.
Fishler is a member of the Air Force ROTC while Bergen serves in the Army ROTC. Even though the two women come from different branches of the military, they share similar experiences. Both cadets stressed a sense of feeling alone because of their Judaism. “We share the experience that we’re one of very few either in our battalion or our company,” said Bergen. The feeling of separateness was similar for Fishler. “I felt almost like a lone soldier with my identity,” said Fishler. “I had no sense that there were other Jewish cadets around the country.” The two hope to fight this isolation by bringing other Jewish cadets together from all branches of the military.
The idea for the cohort came from Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, a long-time chaplain for the armed forces. She is currently working with the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) Jewish Chaplains Council to promote Jewish life in the armed forces. “In a meeting with Adam Lehman (president and CEO of Hillel International), earlier this year, we learned that JWB and Hillel International share an interest in supporting and connecting ROTC cadets with one another, providing them a space in which to explore what is Jewish about their service commitments and how to engage in Jewish life while on campus and when serving our country as officers,” wrote Rabbi Kaplowitz.
Rabbi Kaplowitz reached out to Fishler and Bergen with the idea for the cohort, and the cadets took over from there. “I am so proud of Arielle and Sophia’s leadership. They personally felt a need to connect with other Jewish ROTC cadets and that has resonated with many others,” she wrote. The two cadets were excited and grateful for the opportunity. “I wanted a Jewish space within the military community because that’s so important to my identity,” said Fishler. Bergen added, “It was such a unique idea to strengthen numbers in a place where you’re normally a minority, and I was really compelled by that idea.”
A community within the military is vital for Jewish students, as military duty is not as common in the U.S., especially among Jewish families. “It’s hard being Jewish even within ROTC because there are such [rigid] expectations for American Jews,” said Fishler. In Fishler’s experience, Jewish young people, especially Jewish women, are often pigeonholed into three careers: doctor, lawyer, or accountant. “[Those careers] have their own version of service, but, [the military] is the most explicit version of service for me,” Fishler added. Both cadets noted how service is more important in Israel, where all citizens are required to do two years of military service. They recognized the meaning behind that duty and have translated it into their own lives.
Fishler and Bergen were excited to meet other cadets who shared their background, as their Jewish identity played a large role in their decisions to pursue a military career. “For me, joining the military was so neatly tied to Judaism and the values of Judaism. When people ask me, ‘Why did you decide to join the military?’ I explain that Judaism is a big reason,” Bergen explained. Fishler agrees about the strong connection between military service and Jewish values. “There are so many values in Judaism that connect to the need for service and to do service,” Fishler elaborated. Both cadets see running the cohort as an extension of their service.
The cohort started meeting in November and now meets once a month via Zoom. Bergen hopes the cohort will continue to bond and members will create new and lasting friendships. “As far as I was concerned, 19 people came to the meeting, and I had 19 new friends,” joked Bergen about the group’s second meeting in December.
In the future, Fishler and Bergen want to have special events or host speakers, but, for now, they’re focused on building the community. “Everyone is just so eager to talk and share their ideas,” explained Bergen. “I imagine a lot of our upcoming meetings will be heavily based in discussion and just getting to hear everyone’s perspectives.”
Interested in joining? Submit your request here. Fishler and Bergen would love to see you there!