Local Jews in the military

The question caused a sea of eyes under newly shorn scalps to sweep curiously over a chapel packed with 300 new Air Force recruits:

"Who's Jewish?"

It was during basic training a few years ago in San Antonio, Texas, and the recruits were being divided by religion to meet their chaplains. Aaron Freedkin, now a 26-year-old senior airman at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, was the only one to raise his hand.

"I went and met the rabbi," recalls Freedkin, originally from Los Angeles. "It was kind of awkward, but I really enjoyed it. It reminded me of home.

"They take away your clothes, your hair, your individuality in essence. The only thing they leave you with is your religion. That's an important stress reliever. Nothing tasted so great that first Friday night as a nice fresh challah."

And while Jews comprise only a small minority — estimated at just under 1 percent — of the country's enlisted men and women, many say the military not only offers them a chance to serve their country and learn a trade but also an opportunity to expose non-Jewish soldiers to the religion and its adherents.

That's not to say the military is free of Jewish bias.

Still, many Jews in the military believe strongly in their positive effect on the armed forces.

At first glance, Stephen Vale looks like any other Navy man: combat boots, military haircut, uniform. But look closer and you'll notice that his camouflage fatigues have a Star of David stitched above the left-hand pocket.

He calls himself Rabbi Mulcahy, the Jewish counterpart of the popular "MASH" character. The rabbi has spent Rosh Hashanah in Iceland, Yom Kippur in Italy, Shabbat in Saudi Arabia and several months on land and in the air with his seven squadrons at Travis Air Force Base.

As the armed forces' TV jingle goes: They don't ask for experience; they give it. And for one of the military's 34 staff rabbis, two of whom are women, Vale wouldn't have it any other way.

Vale says he likes being a spiritual presence for the military's few "fringe Jews," and he likes introducing Judaism to servicepeople who have never met a Jew.

As a military rabbi, "you are good public relations for Judaism, showing non-Jews we're part of this country. I'm an officer; I wear an officer's uniform and rank; that has a sense of respect and kavod [honor]. That's good for Judaism," said Vale.

A disproportionate 50 percent of Jews in the military currently serve as officers.

Joshua Jacobs may be heading toward a career in the military's highest ranks.

Already, this 20-year-old aviation machinist's mate and airman's apprentice has been awarded a letter of appreciation from the commanding officer of the U.S. Pacific fleet. He was commended for his assistance during aviation school — nicknamed "A-school" — when he helped in the aftermath of a fatal aircraft accident near the Tennessee campus last year.

"They needed me to pick up pieces of dangerous jet materials," recalls Jacobs, who was home in the Bay Area for a few days earlier this winter after his first six months at sea. "There are parts that can cut right through the skin and gloves. There were still pieces of bodies. I felt really bad. I almost felt what they were feeling when they went down," he adds.

Jacobs, who graduated from Rancho Cotati High School in the Sonoma County city of Rohnert Park, was accepted at Temple University in Philadelphia. Instead, with the support of his father, Martin Jacobs, he joined the Navy.

"It was a tough decision," says the elder Jacobs. "Most Jewish parents don't encourage their kids to join but I look at the long range. He came back [from basic training] with more self-esteem and confidence. If he can make it through that, he can make it through anything."

An accomplished painter and sprinter, the younger Jacobs is waiting to hear from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, which may be recruiting the F-18 engine mechanic to join its track-and-field team.

Another local Jew has already made it to the famed academy in Maryland. Ben Moglen, a Mill Valley native and 1993 graduate of Marin Academy, is one of 40 active members of the academy's Jewish Midshipmen's Club, which recently arranged for the film "Schindler's List" to be screened before the entire school.

Director Steven Spielberg was among the 5,000 on hand for the film's largest screening to date.

Moglen doesn't know if he'll stay in the military or go into the civilian world of international finance. Still, he says, "I definitely made the right choice" in attending the military academy.

"Ever since I was a little guy, I always wanted to spend some part of my life in the military," says Moglen in a phone interview from his dorm room at the academy. "I felt it was something I owed my country."

Wanting to join the military "is kind of unusual, especially [when you're] from Marin," he jokes.

His experience, he says, is nothing like those his friends are having at civilian universities. In fact, he says the academy makes finals week at other schools look like Mardi Gras.

A drug and alcohol program adviser and multisport athlete, Moglen is the only guy he grew up with who wears shined shoes and dry-cleaned service dress blues — "what Tom Cruise wore in `A Few Good Men'" — every day. And that's casual wear. For class, Moglen dons a black shirt and black tie, or "winter working blues."

The 22-year-old midshipman admits with some chagrin that his desire to join the military may have been influenced by the dapper 007.

"Most of my friends claim I've always wanted to be James Bond," Moglen said. "I don't agree, but I do like the fact that things come easily to him, that people expected a lot from him.

"I always like people expecting a lot from me, too. I like to be challenged and than to go beyond people's initial expectations of me."

Moglen and other local Jews are taking the words of the Army's other TV advertisement to heart — "Be all that you can be." They just may be lonely ambassadors of Judaism while they're doing it.