My time in the military gave me a new love for Judaism

By Steve Markman

I think each veteran chose military service for a different reason. For some it was patriotism, for some to learn a skill, and some just needed a job. Going back earlier, some of us were drafted. But each of us gained something from that experience, along with memories, both good and maybe not so good. In my case, my military service brought me to loving Judaism.

When I was a kid back in the ’50s and ’60s, Hebrew school was no pleasure. The teachers did nothing to make it fun or even interesting. I think the most Hebrew I learned was “sheket, yeladim, quiet, children,” always yelled, never spoken. After my bar mitzvah, I refused to go to temple anymore or to post-bar mitzvah classes.

I grew up in a kosher home. My parents were moderately observant, but usually went to synagogue only on the High Holidays. I usually got dragged with them each year. That was the extent of my religious activity for many years.

My high school was maybe a quarter Jewish. I had my little circle of Jewish friends, but I found most of the Jewish kids to be incredibly snobbish. I never fit in with any of the organizations that claimed to be there to bring Jewish teens together.

When I attended Ohio State, there was a Hillel and a Chabad, both within easy walking distance, but who needed them? Not me. I found my future wife, Helen, through a mutual friend, the spring of my last year in Columbus.

After graduating, I joined the Air Force in June 1970, and went to officer training school at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. Anyone who has served in the military can tell you that you’re thrown into a completely new life and environment and expected to adapt quickly. Nothing from your old lifestyle remains: not your daily routine, not your clothes, not even your hair style.

We trained hard for six days a week but got Sunday off. After spending four or five Sundays doing nothing but getting caught up on lost sleep, I decided to go to the Jewish service just to see something different for a few hours.

I walked into the designated multi-purpose chapel, grabbed a prayer book and kipah from the Jewish shelf, and sat down. The prayers didn’t sound familiar, but many of the melodies did.

And as I sat there, and I can’t explain why, I felt something comforting, like my first visit home after being away at college. I felt the presence of my parents and my grandparents. I started to feel at home. I attended the service again on several more Sundays and always left with a feeling of calm.

I then moved on to my operational base at Grand Forks, N.D to be a maintenance officer for Minuteman nuclear missiles. This time, I sought out the small Jewish congregation on the base and again found familiarity, and also instant friendship, so far from home.

We didn’t have our own Jewish chaplain, but the rabbi from Fargo came up once each month for a Shabbat service. Everyone got an aliyah. I stumbled through the English transliteration the first few times, but soon relearned the prayers we do for each Torah reading, and looked forward to my turn.

Everyone was far from home, but we were a family. I was happy to be with them. For Passover, I was invited to someone’s house for a Seder. For Rosh Hashanah, I drove all the way to Fargo to attend the service. No one had to drag me this time!

When I got out of the Air Force a few years later, we settled here in Dayton. My wife and I joined Temple Israel, then Beth Abraham, and eventually Temple Beth Or. When Chabad came to Dayton, we were invited to come to services. I was hesitant at first, but found them very warm and welcoming.

After seeing members of the congregation chanting portions of the service, I said to myself, “I can do that.” I started with my bar mitzvah Haftorah in 2000. Over the years, I learned a half dozen or so additional Haftorahs that I do there. Now, here’s the twist: When my dad used to come here to visit, guess who got taken to Chabad with us!

When we return to civilian life, we take with us not just the skills and confidence we learned, but also our call to service, and some new outlook about ourselves and our way of thinking. In my case, it gave me a new love for Judaism.

Steve Markman is a past Ohio department commander of Jewish War Veterans and past commander of JWV Post 587 in Dayton. He lives in Washington Township.

To read the complete January 2023 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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