U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Doug Mendelsohn grew up at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, Calif. He was an officer in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M, and today is stationed at Fort Benning, near Columbus, Ga.
Mendelsohn not only attends the weekly Jewish service on Sunday morning at the base, but he and recently promoted 1st Lt. Anna Menser have been trained by Rabbi Karen Berger, serving as a chaplain at Fort Benning, to lead services.
Periodically, members of Atlanta’s Jewish War Veterans Post 112 drive down to Fort Benning to participate in the service and help with the post-service oneg sponsored by Temple Israel of Columbus.
Most of the 500 to 600 soldiers who attend the Jewish services are new recruits going through combat arms training. Relatively few, maybe two or three dozen, are Jewish. The oneg, particularly the bagels, are a draw.
“It is a privilege to be part of such a unique Jewish service,” Mendelsohn told the AJT, in a telephone conversation that included Robert Max, Southeast regional commander of JWV.
It is rewarding, Mendelsohn said, “to be able to be the face of Judaism and one of the officers they interact with during basic training. … One of the best things we can do to fight anti-Semitism is to educate and show people that we’re not that different.” Jewish services at Fort Benning were started 18 years ago by U.S. Navy Capt. Neil Block, a 1961 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., who retired from active duty as a lieutenant commander in the Seabees, the Navy’s construction battalion, and also retired as a captain in the Naval Reserve.
In an article two years ago, the AJT reported that “Block has been known to warn that the failure to shmear a bagel with cream cheese is an automatic Article 15 (a crime against the Uniform Code of Military Justice).”
According to the Defense Department, there are 1.3 million men and women serving in the armed forces (Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines). As of 2017, the military recognized 221 different faith groups. There is no accurate count on the number of Jews serving in the military, only estimates based on surveys involving self-identification.
A paper published in March 2010 by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute estimated that about 1 percent of the uniformed military were Jewish. A Defense Manpower Data Center estimate in January 2015 put the figure at 0.4 percent. The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers said that Defense Department data, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, put the figure at 0.34 percent.