This is going to knock your socks off. Carol and I performed Jewish services for 23 marines on Parris Island yesterday. If I just left this first sentence with no explanation, the reactions would be interesting. If I had heard someone say it, without explanation, I too would question what the hcck it meant.
Our good friend Al Richter, a former combat grunt during the Vietnam War has a heartfelt feeling about all of our troops in all branches of the military. Since he was in combat, he knows what the possibilities are for these youngsters who are going through basic training on Parris Island. It is an intense training with all of the conditions that one might find in a combat zone.
About 8 years ago, Al got a call from the chaplain on the Parris Island Marine base. He has been asked if there was anyone outside the compound who could run services for the Jewish recruits. Since there was no Rabbi on base then (there is now), Al volunteered to find folks who might have the desire and skill to provide services for the youngsters.
That was 8 years ago. Now there is a special room for services, a torah and ark, prayer books, yarmulkes and Tallitim (prayer shawls) and other items associated with Jewish services. There is also a mezuzah on the door (a small metal cylinder with the prayer Hear Oh Israel the Lord is God the Lord is one on a scroll inside the cylinder).
Al has a group of volunteers who usually are available on a Sunday when the Rabbi is not available. This time none of the other volunteers were able to be there. Al called us and we were able to go. It is an eerie feeling stopping at the gate and showing my ID to a marine. He was very helpful and gave us directions to the recruit religious center. We had been there a few times before, but my sense of direction is really bad.
We arrived about 30 minutes before 8:00 a.m. so that we could prepare for the service. We had brought 2 challahs (twisted egg bread). The last time we were there, the challah that they had was atrocious. They use the bread and the grape juice that are provided to say blessings over at the end of the service. The service went off smoothly. Carol did a great job explaining the portion of the Torah that was appropriate for the Sabbath. This was the story of the giving of the torah and Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. It is called Shavuot. It is also related to the planting of crops in ancient times.
During the service there were some questions and statements by the 23 recruits that were there. It appeared, when we asked to marines at the end of the service to tell a bit about themselves, that only about 5 were actually Jewish. It still is interesting to us why others were there. Some think it is because there is challah and grape juice at the end of the service. I have a feeling that it is something more than that.
Actually, there were 4 loaves of challah. The rabbi had gotten two of them that were pretty good, so the group had a blast. They told us that they didn’t have much time to eat in the mess hall.
The most interesting part of the experience, for us, was hearing about each and every one of the recruits. They were mostly from the East Coast. Some had parents and even great grandparents who were marines. One of the marines had family that went back to the Revolutionary War.
There were a number who had gone to college, spent one semester and even to completion and felt that they would rather serve their county than do anything else. There were a few that were going to Officer’s Candidate School in Texas after their training was over.
There were two marines who had actually finished training and were ready to ship out to their next station. Before they did that, they had an opportunity to go home. I can recall my trip home after basic training. I was so proud of surviving and wore the uniform proudly. I put it on to go to the movies and other places. It’s a marvelous feeling to know that you had accomplished something extraordinary.
I spoke to the group about how it would be speaking to people who had not been in the military about their experiences. I told them that it would be difficult. It has always been that way. As we left and shook hands with the 21 young men and two young women, I felt that somehow we had experiences something unique. It’s not normal to say, “Shalom Recruits.”