The Boiling Point

PAYING A DEBT: US Navy Lt. Ethan Samuels, Shalhevet ’03, has served in global hot spots

BP Photo by Ariela Feitelberg

Rose Bern, Opinion Editor

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It’s the first night of Passover 2011, and U.S. Navy Lt. (Junior Grade) Ethan Samuels, Shalhevet class of 2003, is on duty running combat operations in Afghanistan from his base on the USS Carl Vinson.

He misses the first seder, but the next night, his commander allows him to attend the second seder, which is conducted by a rabbi flown in from Bahrain.

“They bent the rules to make sure I could go to the seder the second night,” Lt. Samuels said in an interview Feb. 21 in The Boiling Point office.

“But if they need you to stay on duty, you just do. National defense does kind of trump every thing else.”

 

Lt. Samuels’ activities on the USS Carl Vinson are entirely classified and he could divulge none of what he had actually done.  But his ship has been involved in some of the most sensitive operations of the past few years.

The New York Times reported in January that the Carl Vinson was patrolling the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow body of water between the Persian Gulf and the gulf of Oman through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil supply is shipped. Iran’s recent threat to block the Strait of Hormuz resulted in an increased naval presence in the area.

The USS Carl Vinson also made the news as the ship from which the remains of Osama bin Laden had been eased into the sea last May 1 – a mere two weeks after that Passover seder.

Asked whether he’d been on board for the ceremony or involved in any way, Lt. Samuels seemed to search for words he couldn’t use, since he cannot discuss his work. Finally he said, “I will tell you that there’s been a lot of misinformation put out.”

That was all he would say.

The second-night seder was held in the “captain’s mess” – that is, the private dining room of the ship’s captain.

 

While defending U.S. interests on the high seas, Lt. Samuels maintained his practice of Judaism as best he could. An October 2011 article in the Vinson Voice, an online magazine produced for sailors and their family members, described his laining the Torah portion during shipboard services held on Rosh Hashanah.

“The festivities began with a reading from the Torah, Genesis 21:34 in its original Hebrew form, presented by by Lt. j.g. Ethan Samuels of Strike Fighter Squadron 22… The melodic reading told the story of Abraham and Sarah having their son, Isaac.”

Lt. Samuels told The Boiling Point that he had brought his tefillin aboard, and that the U.S. military also provided Jewish soldiers with prayer books.

More significantly, he said that they had Shabbat Friday night services every week.

“The admiral’s chief legal advisor…was the senior Jewish person on the ship,” Lt. Samuels said. “Dinners were difficult because of the lack of kosher facilities, but we taught the chef how to bake a challah. We had to use electric candles because it would have been dangerous otherwise.”

He stated that while the US military considers a Jewish soldier’s religious obligations, his military duties supersede anything else, and that’s as it should be. Work in the Navy, he said, can all be considered following the mitzvah of saving a life, which allows a Jew to violate most other commandments.

“I just consider it an extension of pekuach nefesh (saving a life), and if I’m wrong, well, I’ll find out.”

His Judaism has impacted his service despite a relatively small population of Jews on the USS Carl Vinson, he said.In fact, being Jewish is part of why he wanted to serve.

“The US is the largest single granter of religious freedom… It’s part of its charter; my family’s going to have a future as a Jewish American family – not to mention the significant lengths to which the us goes to help guarantee Israel’s survival.”

He said he thought Shalhevet had prepared him well for the work he is doing, partly by preparing him to think morally.

“The world you’re gonna go off into will present unique challenges to you as a Jew and as an individual,” Lt. Samuels said, “but the intellectual and personal strength that you can get as part of the Kohlbergian student model will give you a firm moral grounding which will inform you of the morality of the choices you make later in life.”

Meanwhile, he wishes more of his generation would serve.

“I would say being a Jew in America, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the U.S.,” he said, “and I think in this generation as in most generations it’s kind of a sorry thing that more Jews aren’t involved in national service. “

 

Q and A with Lt. j.g. Ethan Samuels, Shalhevet Class of 2003

Why did you decide to join the United States military and not the Israeli Defense Force, which is a much more common choice for Shalhevet grads?

Yes I’m a Jew, but I’m also an American, and I’m proud that I’m an American, and I think you can do a whole lot more being part of a global force for good.

I always respect Israel, but the place where I grew up and where my family did as well for itself as it did is the U.S. The institutions that keep my family safe were not written in 1948, they first came about in 1776…. The commissioning oath that I took and that I reaffirm every time I get promoted is to protect and defend the constitution, and it’s that constitution that allows Shalhevet to exist along with Catholic schools, Muslim schools and secular schools along with every choice that you get to make in terms of our careers, religions, our way of life.

I think to shirk our responsibilities toward the U.S. just because we’re Jewish could be considered kind of a waste.

The United States of America is the largest single grantor of religious freedom anywhere in the world. It’s part of its charter; my family’s going to have a future as a Jewish American family – not to mention the significant lengths to which the U.S. goes to help guarantee Israel’s survival…

I would say, being a Jew in America, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the U.S. and I think in this generation as in most generations it’s kind of a sorry thing that more Jews aren’t involved in national service.

Also, in certain academic circles, some believe Jews are hijacking American foreign policy because of a constant pro-Israel tilt. It’s not true, but the paucity of Jewish servicemen lends unwarranted credibility to any allegations of questionable loyalty amongst the Jewish community.

Have you experienced or seen any anti-semitism?

Honestly the military is one of the biggest meritocracies in the world, in that if you’re good at your job you can be black, white, Wikkan, homosexual before and after don’t-ask-don’t-tell – we all joke about ourselves and joke about each other.

The way that you knew you were in good with your unit was that you were fair game to be made fun of. The way you knew you were in trouble was people were cold, distant, never disrepsectful but you were just too much of an outsider to make a joke about.
I haven’t seen any type of persecution.

What do you do in the US military, and what’s it like?

My first deployment with the USS Carl Vinson was from November 2010 to June 2011, and my second was November 2011 and concluded in February 2012.

I work with a Strike Fighter Squadron 22, the Fighting Redcocks. You can make whatever joke you want about that — they’ve all been made.

There is a fair amount of silliness – it helps with camaraderie. When you have 4,600 roommates in an area that spans 250 yards and encompasses about 90,000 tons of steel, you really want to make sure you get along with everybody.

We say the Carl Vinson is 90,000 tons of American diplomacy. One of the big things that an aircraft carrier does is it kind of personifies why we call the Navy, a global force for good, but a better definition might be a global force for peace. We can put 4-1/2 acres of American territory wherever we want to and whenever we need to. We are the primary holder of aggression in check.

Do you ever get homesick?

Everybody gets homesick — for me it’s my time at the gym – but the good thing is I’m so busy that I don’t really have time to feel homesick.

I’ve been deployed twice in two years, with four months in between.  Sounds like a lot but normally you have a year and a half to get ready.

What is it like be a Jew in the military?

I do whatever I can based on the amount of time I have, based on where I am and what my circumstances allow. I keep Judaism as much as I can and encourage other Jews to do the same.

There are times when that becomes difficult, but it’s one of those things. The IDF has people standing duty on Yom Kipput and Rosh Hashanah… The fact of the matter is that any enemy we have in the United States is not bound by our laws or our calendar.

[Shabbat] dinners were kind of difficult because of the paucity of kosher meat. We did teach some of the culinary specialists how to bake a challah.We had to use electric candles because of the safety hazard of lighting fire on the ship.

What about holidays?

On the first night of Passover this year, we were actually running combat ops into Afghanistan. We were getting a rabbi on board to conduct seder the second night, but there wasn’t anything happening for the first seder.

I had a pretty specialized job, involving a record-keeping and information transference, and even so they bent the rules to make sure I could go to the seder the second night. The Admiral flew a rabbi onto the ship from Bahrain to conduct Passover services, and he gave us his own mess [dining room] to hold the seder in.

You do get special consideration for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, but if they need you to stay on duty, you just do. National defense does kind of trump every thing else. I just consider it an extension of pekuach nefesh, and if I’m wrong, well, I’ll find out.

How do Jews and Muslims get along on the ship?

I haven’t interacted with tons of Muslims but one of my instructors in training command is a devout African-American Muslim. He was of the “greater jihad” variety – [he believes the] greater war is living a devout life in a world that’s overcome by corruption. It’s not too far from Jewish mentality either. He says it’s easy to die a martyr or a hero, and infinitely more difficult to live like one.

Most of the Muslims that I’ve encountered not just in the military but in general are just as pluralistic as I am and in fact Jewish chaplains are trained to perform Muslim services.

When you have one command chaplain that happens to be Jewish and there are Muslims of that command, he’s also the facilitator of all forms of worship within that command.  The rabbi flown onto the Vinson for the seder was fluent in Arabic. He and I were arguing about Arabic literature in Arabic.

How did you become involved in the US military?

I went to the University of Chicago and got a degree in Middle Eastern Studies. I spoke Arabic, and thought I’d get an entry-level job in the workforce and then go to law school.… I mailed out 400 copies of my resume … But it wasn’t long before I realized no such luck. I ended up translating for a private contractor in Iraq, and I decided I wanted to be part of what was really going on there, which meant joining the U.S. military.

I decided to try to go to Officer Candidate School, but I couldn’t apply from Iraq. So I had to resign and take a chance of being left unemployed. Thankfully, I was accepted.

I was in a training command in Virginia Beach for six months, then assigned to a strike fighter squadron. It’s part of a carrier air wing – it deploys with the ship but you’re not technically assigned to the ship.

How long do you expect to remain in the military?

I have the option to get out at the end of four years, but I won’t. There are three reasons: One, I like what I’m doing; two, the job market is not great; and three, most people my age are stuck in an office some day doing somebody’s clerical work and hating their life. I have no desire to do that.

Every day I go to work I know that anything can happen. I know I can be told to do probably anything. I know I have a lot of complicated and potentially dangerous adventures ahead of me.

I definitely would much rather be involved in complicated, potentially dangerous adventures than being cooped in a cubicle all day, or worse, begging for a job where I would ultimately be cooped in a cubicle all day long.

What is your ultimate ambition in the US military?

NAVCENT [Naval Forces Central Command] is the Naval component of Centcom [United States Central Command, the theatre level command unit of the U.S. military]. I would like to make vice admiral and own that field. Vice Admiral James F. Dorsey, who retired from my field, did some very interesting, controversial but ultimately very  successful adaptations to my field. I would like to make a contribution like that.

Is there anything you would like to say, especially to Shalhevet students?

I would say that it is one of the more menchlikeit, supportive environments here than you’ll get anywhere else…

The world you’re gonna go off into will present unique challenges to you as a Jew and as an individual, but the intellectual and personal strength that you can get as part of the Kohlbergian student model will give you a firm moral grounding which will inform you of the morality of the choices you make later in life.

Also, I definitely think the U.S. military is a great career path. I think this generation especially can really do their country a tremendous amount of good although like every industry, the military is not hiring – 5,000 were just let go….

There was kind of a notion that was prevalent today that the military is kind of a cop-out for people who don’t know what to do with their lives and don’t have other options. But in reality it’s a very competitive field… Let me assure you that dumb sailors don’t last very long – there’s a great deal of competition for positions, especially now.

This story won a National Award in Feature Writing in Quill & Scroll’s 2013 International Writing and Photo Contest.

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PAYING A DEBT: US Navy Lt. Ethan Samuels, Shalhevet ’03, has served in global hot spots