No, Thank *You* For Your Service

November 1, 2023Rabbi Lawrence Freedman

It wasn't because of 9/11. It wasn't because I had a tradition of military service in my family. And while the pay and benefits are nice, it wasn't for those reasons, either. That wasn't why I joined the U.S. Air Force Reserves in 2003 and later switched to the Air National Guard. I joined for the same reason I became a rabbi: I have a desire to serve others and be part of something larger than myself.

Jews have choices about interacting with others when living in a modern country. We can form tight-knit neo-shtetls and interact with society as little as possible or we can assimilate completely and interact with Judaism as little as possible - or something in between. We can be Jewish Americans or Jewish Canadians (or any other nationality) who balance both (or multiple) identities. We can thank Napoleon for that.

In 1806, Napoleon sent his interior minister, Jean-Baptiste Nompère de Champagny, to an assembly of Jewish leaders known as the French Sanhedrin. Champagny asked them a series of questions to determine if they identified as French and whether their Jewish identity would interfere with their French civic duty. They answered that Jews could be French and Jewish. This led Napoleon to declare that Jews were no longer outcasts, but full citizens and would have the same rights and civic responsibilities as other French citizens. That decision has influenced many western countries. To this day, we Jews accept the responsibilities of both our Jewish and American identities.

People thank me for my service, which is nice, but sometimes I ask how they serve their country. You don't need to wear a uniform to serve. Military service is just one way to support our country that has done so much for us. Maybe you are a volunteer firefighter, organize or attend political marches, run food drives, coach little league, or volunteer at the library. Responding to the needs of your local community, being engaged in the democratic process, and advancing justice are some ways we all can be of service.

It's very nice to salute military members this Veterans Day, and we do appreciate it. Our service is challenging, particularly for those of us who are on active duty. But let's make sure we don't slip into veneration. My time in the Air National Guard has made me a better rabbi and a better leader. It has taught me how to work through drama and challenged me to understand people who are very different from me. But that's just my service. Ask yourself, "What can I do to be of service to my community, region, or country?" When you find your answer, you will be the best citizen you can be by being part of something larger than yourself.

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