ALBANY, N. Y. (Feb. 15)
Tony Litwin’s U. S. Army uniform isn’t exactly like most other enlisted men’s because he proudly wears a kippah on his head at all times. “When I first arrived at Fort Sill, Texas, “he said, “my superiors asked me what I had on my head and told me to take it off, or I’d get kicked out of the army. But we finally come to a friendly agreement.”
Litwin, who converted to Judaism a year ago, studied for five years and was, “turned down” by several rabbis. He finally completed an Orthodox conversion in New York City, under the guidance of Rabbi Basil Herring of Kingston, New York, be explained.
Litwin, 26, a native of California, whose original surname was Lagano, took his present surname from his wife’s grandmother’s maiden name after he completed his conversion. A Vietnam War veteran, he reenlisted immediately after his conversion, complete with beard and payot. His current status is Spec. 4, working with computers in Fire Direction Control.
“I shaved voluntarily,” he said, “but I still wear a kippah and arba kanfot (fringes), and I also daven and wear tefillin. I get some ‘flack’ but when I explain that I’m on Orthodox Jew, officers usually seem to understand.”
TRIES TO INSTILL JEWISHNESS
Now stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina Litwin said that with the exception of chaplains, he has never met another G1 with a kippah. “Most Jewish soldiers I meet are young Reform Jews who don’t follow rituals, “he said” I try to instill a little “Jewishness” in them, but they don’t seem to care.”
According to Dennis Rapps, executive director and general counsel for the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs ( COLPA), a group of volunteer attorneys that represent Orthodox groups, the wearing of kippot in the army is part of a larger issue that includes beards. COLPA has had several cases against the U. S. Air Force, he said.
Several years ago at Pease Air Force Base, a doctor who wore a kippah at all time was told to take it off in the mess hall. The doctor was told he could only wear the kippah when it was correct to wear his officer’s hat. At these times, he was to wear the kippah under the hat. “They were going to court martial him,” Rapps said, “but COLPA resolved the problem before it come to court.”
The kippah and beard questions both have to be discussed in the context of what constitutes a proper uniform, Rapps continued. “In one case involving the beard of a Jewish Air Force Chaplain, Rabbi Michael Geller, we won in the Federal District Court in Washington: D. C. ” With this case setting a precedent, COLPA is now handling a similar count proceeding concerning another bearded Air Force Chaplain, Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, of Bangor, Maine.
If Litwin doesn’t continue to find officers that are willing to come to “friendly agreements” with him, COLPA may yet have another case.