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At West Point, Hillel Offers Taste of Jewish Life Before Military Service

June 7, 2005
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No Hillel director could be more devoted to graduating seniors than Maj. Carlos Huerta, the Jewish chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy. “You can’t imagine how I feel,” Rabbi Huerta said recently. “They’re not going to work for a corporation. They will be on a battlefield in 12 months.”

Rabbi Huerta was presiding over the Jewish baccalaureate service that preceded the cadets’ graduation ceremony on Memorial Day weekend. The service was held in West Point’s stately Jewish chapel, a towering building with a commanding view of the Hudson River below.

With a formal synagogue, social hall, library and administrative offices, the chapel could be a Hillel building anywhere in the world. Indeed, West Point itself, located in the green hills of the Hudson River valley 50 miles north of New York City, seems more like a college campus than an army base.

But from the security checkpoint at the school’s entrance to the cadets’ starched uniforms, the atmosphere is strictly army. Hillel at West Point is an Army-sponsored group affiliated with Hillel through the Soref Initiative for Emerging Campuses.

The group functions in much the same way as Hillels anywhere in the world: It enables students to study Hebrew and Jewish tradition, celebrate holidays, participate in service-learning opportunities, sing in a choir and engage in social activities.

Jewish cadet leaders participate in Hillel’s Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly every year. For Jewish cadets from small towns, West Point Hillel often enables them to experience a vibrant Jewish community for the first time in their lives.

The group also attracts a fair number of non-Jewish cadets who enjoy participating in its activities. And at West Point, Hillel provides a much-needed respite from the stress and regimentation of army life.

The 19 graduating seniors — 16 men and three women — are departing for posts across the United States and around the globe. They have chosen careers in everything from the military police to air defense, the infantry to the medical corps. One graduate was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, one of the first two cadets ever to be so honored.

As Time magazine aptly pointed out in its May 30 cover story, this graduating class made a conscious decision to remain at West Point after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, despite the inevitability of participating in a war.

The reality of war was driven home to these cadets when both the former president of West Point Hillel, 2nd Lt. Dan Helmer, and Rabbi Huerta were deployed to Iraq during the opening stages of the war.

Though the war cast a shadow over the event, the baccalaureate ceremony was not a time to discuss apprehensions but to celebrate four years of hard work. With the participation of 200 family members, teachers, alumni and representatives of the Jewish War Veterans, the event also was an affirmation of a subculture within a subculture: Jews in the military, the military within the Jewish community.

Keynote speaker Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for President Bush, praised the young people for performing a “double mitzvah” — engaging in profound service to their country and demonstrating a deep commitment to their Jewish heritage.

“I am proud to know that our nation will be kept strong because of your work,” he said.

No matter how familiar the ceremony, no matter that these parents hugged their children like parents everywhere, these were young people with a difference: These students would not just be college graduates, they would be military officers, soldiers, warriors. Warriors with discerning minds and deep souls.

When the West Point Jewish Choir performed during the baccalaureate service, they sang an English-language version of the Hebrew song Machar, a hopeful song of peace. On the eve of their becoming military officers, this is what they sang: “Machar [tomorrow] we’ll put away our uniforms and be warriors no more.”

Jeff Rubin is associate vice president for communications of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

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