My Southern Jewish Son, the US Army Sergeant/Black Hawk Helicopter Crew Chief

By Ann Zivitz Kientz, Director of Programming for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life

20130619-091527.jpgWhen we brought our baby son home from the hospital nearly 27 years ago, we imagined many things for his future.

The Army wasn’t one of them.

The Jewish Chaplains Council estimates that there are currently around 10,000 active duty men and women known to be Jewish. My son, Sergeant Harrel Carlton Kimball, is one of those active duty Jewish soldiers.

I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise – from a very young age, he insisted on running outside every time he heard a “hoptercopter” in the sky! We got really lucky after basic training; he was assigned to his individual training at a base that had a retired Rabbi serving as a Chaplain. It gave him an opportunity to connect to something familiar and normal during this big transition in his life. Then he was assigned to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, for his home base. He attended synagogue for a couple of Shabbat services and the high holy days in Nashville, Tennessee, about 45 minutes away, and the congregation was very happy to accommodate him!

And then came his first deployment in 2010 to Afghanistan. How does a Jewish mother bless her child before an event like this? The only thing I could think to do was the priestly blessing over him. Much to my surprise, he did not stop me, or even seem embarrassed when others passed us by at the airport. It was a moment I will never forget.

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While in Afghanistan, he celebrated the High Holy Days privately, without any service attendance; Chanukah, too, came and went during this deployment, but it was a sheer delight! His buddies rallied around him as he opened his gifts, played dreidel and lit his tiny Menorah.

Since that first deployment to Afghanistan, he spent a year-long deployment in Honduras, and is now considering one more tour in Afghanistan if he reenlists for another year (he is nearing the completion of his six year enlistment). The most common question I get from others is how I cope with the worry. My faith helps. I do not believe my son or I are any more important to God than anyone else, but my faith gives me strength to deal with life.

My hometown rabbi, Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai in New Orleans, gave a sermon once that really stuck with me. It was titled “The Jungle is Neutral.” “The jungle” could be the universe, a war zone, mother nature, a bad cell inside a body, a stray bullet, a car accident; his sermon’s thesis was that these things do not happen to bad people as a punishment, they just happen. This is my faith, this is my Judaism, and this is my strength.

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Of course, I pray for my son’s safety and the safety of all of our troops. I pray because my connection in prayer with God gives me strength, and because my son knows that I pray, and that gives him guidance and strength.

As an “army mom,” three things have helped immensely:

  1. Prayer.
  2. Avoiding constant worry. There is no advantage to constant worry. It only hurts the worrier and doesn’t help the child (in this case, a full-grown soldier) you’re worrying about.
  3. Remembering that anything can happen anywhere. Who is to say that on any given day someone is safer here or there? I wonder how many moms used to worry about their child’s job in a New York high rise. We just don’t know what the future holds.

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My son, Sergeant Kimball, plans to finish his military career in early 2014 or early 2015, and then finish college and pursue a civilian career. I tease him that he must then give me GIRLY GIRL grandchildren that I can take to ballet and to get mani/pedis and buy lots of sweet pink things for, after all this army-boy stuff! I tease him that this is my reward for keeping a stiff upper lip, but the truth is, he has been my sweet reward all along. I couldn’t be prouder of him.

Reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning. To receive more about Jewish life from MyJewishLearning, visit them here.

5 comments

  • Sidney Stein

    Perhaps Americans and particularly Jews need to rethink their attitudes towards the military which alongside of police, firefighters and teachers are honorable professions that help society. It has gotten where even in Israel many families don’t favor their children doing their military service.
    Maybe some reflection on the state of our values needs to take place. My time in the infantry was one of the most important experiences of my life, and I believe most veterans feel the same way.

    Sid Stein
    2nd Infantry Division
    Imjin Scout- Republic of Korea DMZ 1991-1992
    Skokie, IL

  • Larry Altersitz

    The looks and comments I got while in ROTC and the Army from well-meaning people and relatives were legion. My basic response was “So, the IDF, goyim from Kansas?”

    Funny true story: new rabbi on post. Grew up in the Chicago Jewish ghetto, college, seminary, then into the Army and Ft. Wood, MO. Meet him at Hannukah, introduce myself and he says, “So, Captain, what do you do at the hospital?” “Oh, Rabbi, I’m not at the hospital.” “Oh, Finance?” “No, Rabbi.” “Quartermaster?” “No Rabbi, I’m a Basic Combat Training company commander.” I could see he was worried, so I tried to assuage his fears: “I’m Field Artillery.” He was more shocked. Tried again: “And I’m an Airborne Ranger.” Thought he was going to faint.

    I know two other Jewish Airborne Rangers here in NJ and one is Special Forces. The SF vet’s father served in E Co, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (“Band of Brothers”) and Wild Bill Guarnere knew him as “Little P”.

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  • Thank you for this. My son is ROTC, but last summer certified Airbourne. This summer he was with Special Forces in Bragg for a while. He starts his Commitment this May. This June, before leaving, he tried to speak with a Reform Rabbi, who would not answer his call, and he spoke with a Chabad Rabbi who did not know any prayers for a soldier. When he originally signed up I felt alone. I do not know of any Jewish parents whose child is in the US military. I was judged by some as being a bad parent. Why aren’t we Jews (in general) more vocal and supportive as a group to these noble, incredible young individuals? We are a loud people, except for this circumstance. I would have loved to have spoken to other Jewish parents with children in the US military. I would love to speak to someone today because my son left this morning to report to his Battalion tomorrow morning.