July 10, 2019

Noah Carlen made his bed, shined his shoes and donned his uniform before most bleary-eyed college students were even tempted to hit the snooze button.

His morning routine became second nature after four years as a cadet at the United States Military Academy in West Point, where he received a degree in human geography and military history in May.

The 22-year-old would leave his barracks a few minutes before 6:50 a.m. to stand in formation alongside his fellow cadets. The next eight hours were dedicated to academic courses, with a 30-minute recess for lunch. His late afternoons were occupied by physical activities, such as playing pipes and drums or marching with his rifle to prepare for a parade.  

“Being a cadet at West Point could be tough,” Carlen said. “Hillel was the place I turned to during my free time.”

At 6:30 p.m., Carlen was finally off duty. He spent many evenings at West Point Hillel. Leading rehearsals for the Jewish choir and enjoying Shabbat meals with his peers offered a hiatus from the regimentation of cadet life.

Fewer than 225 Jewish students attend military academies in the United States, according to a 2011 edition of Reform Judaism magazine. They represent a small community, but one with a strong urge to serve their country and connect with their Judaism. Like Carlen, many of them have found Jewish community and a much-needed reprieve from cadet life at their local Hillel.

“I knew a Hillel existed at West Point before I even got there,” he said. “I knew I’d find my way there.”

A white-stone chapel with a commanding view of the Hudson River, West Point Hillel has been home to Jewish cadets since 1984. Carlen even celebrated his recent graduation in the chapel with Hillel peers during a Jewish baccalaureate service.

His class of more than 980 graduates included 12 Jewish cadets, one of whom was the 1,000th Jewish cadet to receive a diploma from West Point.

Carlen, who entered the field of air defense artillery in South Korea, said this milestone defies an age-old stereotype: American Jews don’t serve in the military.

“We’re here, and we’re Jewish,” he said. “American Jews have well established themselves in the American military. The world needs to know that.”

American Jews have raised their hands to enlist in the U.S. military since before the Colonial Era. There are roughly 10,000 American Jews on active duty and 5,000 in the National Guard and Reserves, according to a survey by the Jewish Welfare Board-Jewish Chaplains Council.

Rachelle David, who became an engineer after graduating from West Point in May, highlighted the presence of Jewish cadets at her alma mater since the elite military academy opened its doors. The first graduating class of 1802 was 50% Jewish — though it was only comprised of two students.

Speaking on behalf of herself and Carlen, she said, “I think we’re examples of people who are fighting against the stereotype that Jews don’t serve.”

David, formerly a student leader at West Point Hillel, was the first female graduate of a modern Orthodox yeshiva to enroll at West Point, where the student body numbers nearly 4,500 students.

“Judaism is a central part of my identity,” David, 22, said. “Finding a community with a similar ideology was very important to me. That’s why I became involved in Hillel.”

Joshua Kreitzer, 22, was drawn to Hillel for a similar reason. When he left South Florida to pursue business administration and political science at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, Kreitzer assumed the luxury of having peers who understood his practices would disappear.

The number of Jewish students barely constitute a minyan at The Citadel, which has a population of more than 3,000 students.

“I was worried I wouldn’t see another Jewish person for the next four years,” said Kreitzer, class of ’19. “How would I still connect with my Jewish religion?”

That nagging question was answered shortly after he became a cadet. Kreitzer stumbled upon a welcoming Jewish community at College of Charleston Hillel, just a 10-minute ride from The Citadel. He became a well-known face at CofC Hillel as he explored Judaism on his own terms. 

“Becoming involved in Hillel gave me the opportunity to leave campus and celebrate Jewish holidays, meet new friends and further connect to my Judaism,” he said. “And that means a lot to me.”

In addition to hot Shabbat meals and holiday programs, young cadets active in Hillel have found Jewish community at Jewish Warrior Weekend, a bi-annual Shabbaton dedicated to comradery, learning and celebration of Judaism.

Andrew Kraut, class of ’22 at Texas A&M University and a member of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, was a second-timer at Jewish Warrior Weekend last year.

On a crisp weekend in early November, Kraut and more than 40 cadets from across the country welcomed Shabbat in Washington, D.C. with a song-filled service and kosher dinner. They learned about the history of Jewish military service in the United States, listened to speeches from high-ranking officers and visited the National Museum of American Jewish Military History.

The cadets marked the departure of Shabbat on Saturday night with an outdoor Havdalah service. Kraut, 20, strummed on his guitar as his fellow cadets swayed in a circle and sang prayers.

“Most of my college friends never met a Jew before meeting me,” he said.

Kraut enrolled at Texas A&M in fall 2017 to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering. Although the university boasts more than 50,000 undergraduate students, it’s only home to roughly 250 Jewish undergraduate students, according to the Hillel College Guide.

“I wanted to get to know those 250 people,” he said. “It was important for me to be able to connect with other Jewish students — other people who share the same traditions and customs as me.”

During his freshman year, he became a member of Texas A&M Hillel and tried to become acquainted with each of the 250 Jewish students on campus. Kraut, now a junior at Texas A&M, said he knows almost every one of them.

“We make up a small percentage of students, but we’re a strong, tight-knit community,” he said. “And because of that, it doesn’t feel so small.”