Our congregation has been situated less than twenty minutes away from a large military base for forty years. During that time, the number of military families who have actively sought us out has been quite small, but this past year has taught us that it is worthwhile to actively reach out.
With the support of an incubator grant from the Union of Reform Judaism, our synagogue embarked on an effort to connect with Jewish military service men and women and their families. Our initiative, “Serving Those Who Serve,” included both financial support for military families and programming at the base. We kicked things off with an ice cream social on the base—an opportunity for families to socialize with one another, meet the rabbi, and learn about our religious school. As the year continued, we held a Shabbat dinner on base for military families and members of our congregation (many of whom were veterans and had personal/professional connections to the base) and a havdalah service hosted by one of our military families.
One family in particular that we met in the fall drove home for me the importance of our work. We heavily advertised our ice cream social event on Facebook. One woman who saw our ad commented on the post that she was going to attend along with her children. A single mother with two young children, she had arrived at Fort Meade that summer after serving overseas. She had not yet found any community locally and had not been connected to the Jewish community for many years. She was overjoyed to have the opportunity to speak with our rabbi and enroll her son in our kindergarten class.
For her, and many of the military families that have become a part of our community, synagogue membership or religious school attendance would not have been possible without the significant financial support that our synagogue provides. While financial support had always been available to military families on an individual basis, our “Serving Those who Serve” initiative encouraged us to move a step further. Synagogue leadership worked to build this support into our dues structure, so that military families will not have to ask specifically for aid, or worse, make the assumption that they cannot afford to join our synagogue community. Stating publicly that we offer special programming and support for military families and explicitly tying that to the values we hold as a congregation has been a powerful way for our synagogue to put our values into action in a way that the whole community can recognize and celebrate.
Jewish servicemen and women and their families remain under-served; their lives and the challenges they face can easily remain invisible to the greater public—even in a community like ours, with our geographic proximity to a large military installation. This project has allowed us to put the teaching “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh,” “All Israel is responsible one for the other” into action and made us more reflective about the work we do (and could be doing) to serve the greater Jewish community.
Rachel Petroff Kessler is the Family Educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland.