I’m thinking of joining the military, but I keep kosher, observe Shabbat, etc. Will I be able to observe during boot camp? What about afterwards?

There are two distinct periods of military life: before graduation from basic training (or officer candidate school), and after. As a recruit or candidate you have very little say over what happens to you on a daily basis. You are told when to wake, when to eat, when to work, and when to go to the bathroom. I think it is fair to say that remaining completely observant is impossible. However, if you are willing to compromise for that initial time period, you can go back to far more strict observance when you are done. Some issues are more manageable than others. Here are the big ones:

  • Shabbat: Saturday is a work day in boot camp. There is little getting around this and you will likely have to break this throughout. With some ingenuity, you might be able to minimize certain specifics (like writing), but you will most certainly have to carry and perform other means of work (like shooting a rifle). On the bright side, you will not have to cook or worry about switching on many light switches.
  • Kashrut: Some people have had limited success obtaining kosher rations by directly contacting the chaplain at their base of basic training. This is not common though, and you will most likely have to eat some non-kosher food. Again, this can be mitigated to a great extent. I served with a frum Marine who kept 100% vegetarian (with tuna when available) during training. You will never be forced to eat specifically treif food, but don’t expect to find a hechsher on anything either.
  • Davening: Evening prayer is a given in most cases and if you can wake up before reveille, you can probably knock out a quick shacharit service. There is not a lot of free time otherwise, but if you carry a small siddur you can probably make it happen when there is a minor break.

With all of that said, once you finish with initial training, you will be able to shop for your own food and cook it in the barracks. You will have most weekends off (when not deployed), so Shabbat observance should be mostly a non-issue. Most jobs in the military have standard hours and you will have access to most things you enjoy in civillian life. There are always exceptions, and deployments complicate things, but if you are willing to make the effort few people will stand in your way. Sometimes you will have to pay out of pocket for food, and you might have to work a little harder than your peers, but if you are determined to observe you can make it happen.

There is a plethora of support out there for Jewish service members, including free ritual items, kosher rations, Passover rations, and more. Often times you will have to be the one to initiate the request, but I’ve always found the religious organizations more than willing to accomodate Jewish needs.

Posted in: Life in the Military