Shacharit, the morning Jewish prayer service, is scheduled at Fort Benning on Sundays at “oh-800.”
That’s 8 a.m. civilian time.
A congregation of more than 500 assembled Sunday morning, Dec. 3, in the Regimental Chapel of the Infantry at the U.S. Army base next to Columbus. Most were new soldiers undergoing weeks of basic training, also known as boot camp.
Their ranks — the largest number of recruits to attend a Jewish service at Fort Benning — included a small number of women after the Army infantry became gender-integrated this year.
Some worshippers wore tallit, and some wrapped tefillin. Not all were Jewish, but all were welcome. The Sunday service is the big one on base each week because that’s when the soldiers have a break from training.
The service was led by retired Navy Capt. Neil Block, who is a Jewish lay leader at Fort Benning and a member of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Columbus.
Also participating were retired Army Signal Corps Maj. Robert Max, the commander of Atlanta-based Jewish War Veterans Post 112, and retired Washington State Guard Lt. Col. George Heart, the Post 112 public affairs officer.
At least a couple of Sundays a year since 2014, members of Post 112 have left Atlanta at “zero-dark-thirty” to drive to Fort Benning to assist with the service and host a post-service oneg of bagels, cream cheese, peanut butter, candy and lemonade for more than 500.
Block has been known to warn that the failure to schmear a bagel with cream cheese is an automatic Article 15 (a crime against the Uniform Code of Military Justice).
In addition to donations by kosher bakeries, the Epstein School provided a basket of candy for the latest oneg. Other supplies and volunteers for the oneg came from the Jewish Federation of Columbus and the local Jewish community.
About 30 of the military personnel signed up as new members of Post 112, which has about 300 names on its mailing list.
The military-issue prayer book used for the service was a siddur published in the 1960s, the product of a combined effort by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis and the first such volume published since World War II.
Heart, a member of Congregation Ariel, an Orthodox synagogue in Dunwoody, recited a prayer using his late father’s siddur from World War II and read from a prayer book for Jewish troops issued by the War Department (as it was then called) in World War I.
The Post 112 delegation was small — “quality vs. quantity,” Heart joked. His children — 15-year-old daughter Ahava, a student at Dunwoody High School, and 11-year-old Avi, who attends Peachtree Middle School in Dunwoody — also did readings.
“Avi always says … ‘I have stage fright, and I don’t like doing it,’ and after he’s done with that and interacting with the soldiers, he tells me, ‘I want to go to West Point,’ ” Heart said. “We go down there to host the oneg, to talk to the troops about our services, to say thank you. From them, we get more naches (pride) out of being there, being re-energized by those 500 troops.”
The service at Fort Benning provided a counterpoint to recent comments by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who referred to American Jews as “people that never send their children to fight for their country. Most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan or to Iraq.”
Several dozen Jewish troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than a dozen of them Marines.
Heart was offended by Hotovely’s comments.
“Typically Israeli uppity nose over American Jews. I’ve seen it quite often, unfortunately,” Heart said. “They have no idea that the oldest active veterans organization in the U.S. is the Jewish War Veterans.”