Military is not always at ease when its time for bnai mitzvah

When a Jewish family thinks about relocating to a new town, the process of shopping for a shul begins.

In large metropolitan areas, you can pick and choose. And if you join a congregation and later realize you made the wrong choice, you can choose again and take your dues elsewhere before the next Rosh Hashanah.

But what if you're in the Army? You want a Hebrew school that meets twice a week? Ha! You want a shul where the congregation davens with Sephardic pronunciation? Too bad. You want a congregation that has a cantor and a choir? Sorry.

If you are part of a military family, you are happy when you are in a place that has enough Jews to form a minyan. And you are probably startled by how picky we civilians have become about our worship habits and our Hebrew school schedules.

Jews in the military? Isn't that noteworthy only when there's a long war and a draft? Not really. The numbers might not be as high now as they were during the 1960s, but there are thousands of Jewish soldiers, sailors and other service personnel who are an integral part of our armed forces.

They fly fighter jets, and they prepare soufflés. They drill and fill cavities, and they teach survival skills. They are scattered throughout the branches and the ranks at hundreds of installations around the globe.

There are young, Jewish recruits fresh out of school, and there are career officers — men and women with families. That means there are children who can become a bar or bat mitzvah far away from home, possibly in a place where Jews are in short supply.

For military families stateside, following a familiar Jewish lifestyle can be anything from easy to almost impossible. A lieutenant assigned to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., could join a local congregation, and his children could have the usual pre-bar or bat mitzvah religious-school experience as they prepare to ascend the bimah on their big day.

But life in the military is subject to change, and b'nai mitzvah plans might have to be flexible.

The family of an Army captain stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., would not have many options. Manhattan Congregation is the only synagogue in the area, and it doesn't have a rabbi. But its 35-family membership works closely with the Jewish military establishment, and its religious school can educate and guide soldiers' children through the b'nai mitzvah process.

At some of the larger military bases, a Jewish chaplain — a rabbi in uniform — is the spiritual leader and b'nai mitzvah teacher. The chapel is the shul, and the service people and their families are the congregation and the support staff.

Midsize military facilities might be too small to have a chaplain, but they are usually large enough to have a Jewish lay leader, if one is available.

A lay leader is a service member who volunteers to take on many of the religious responsibilities that a chaplain would handle. Extensive training is required, and there are no monetary incentives for this duty.

But lay leaders gladly give their time and effort to make life in the military more spiritual, more comfortable and, on holidays like Chanukah and Purim, much more fun for Jewish personnel and their families. And some of their most rewarding work is with b'nai mitzvah students.

What about families at locations where there are few Jews? Can those kids have a do-it-yourself bar or bat mitzvah? Is that kosher?

Yes! Jewish agencies that work with the military, primarily the Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council, make sure that every Jewish child who wants to prepare for a bar or bat mitzvah will get study materials and assistance from a local rabbi, chaplain or lay leader, even if it's mostly through correspondence, computer programs, tapes, tutors and phone calls.

Since there are only a few dozen Jewish chaplains, and this number is expected to decrease as our armed services get leaner, lay leaders are asked to step up and do more.

Master Sgt. Mark Kerzner is the lay leader at Fort Meade, Md., and the National Security Agency. Recently, he instructed one bar mitzvah and four bat mitzvah students at the post.

"The last one that was held was the son of an Army staff sergeant who was about to do a remote one-year tour in Korea. Over 100 people were crammed into our chapel area for the service. It was great!"

Army chaplain Avrohom Horovitz, one of only nine Jewish chaplains in the Army, recently relocated to Fort Bragg, N.C. Last year, he officiated at the bar mitzvah of the son of a sailor at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Kings Bay, Ga. Then he had the pleasure of preparing his own son, Meir, for bar mitzvah.

While it's no surprise that an Orthodox rabbi's son does the maximum on the bimah, many interfaith couples and non-observant Jewish couples have expressed an interest in having their children prepare for becoming b'nai mitzvah.

Horovitz, Kerzner and their colleagues welcome these students — many with absolutely no knowledge of Hebrew language or prayer — and make every effort to bring them up to a level where they can say the brachot, chant the Haftarah and have a memorable experience that leads to a richer, more meaningful and mitzvah-motivated Jewish life.

A b'nai mitzvah celebration on base is the culmination of a community effort. Lay tutors often volunteer to work with a student and help him or her through the rough spots that can pop up along the way. And when the day of celebration arrives, the food at the oneg Shabbat or Kiddush is often lovingly prepared by the members of the military congregation.