Jewish Journal


March 27, 2003

Jews on the Warship


When I first packed for my trip as "embedded press" aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt -- one of five navy aircraft carriers deployed for war in Iraq -- I decided to throw a Megillah in my backpack, realizing that I would be on board during Purim. I had considered the possibility of posting an announcement about a Megillah reading. But in the end, as President Bush laid down his 48-hour ultimatum on Purim night, my 5,500 fellow seamen prepared for battle, and I read through the story of Esther and the Persian Jews on my own.

On its last cruise from September 2001 through March 2002, the USS Theodore Roosevelt -- one of two carriers in the Mediterranean -- eight or nine Jewish sailors would gather for Friday night dinner together and a Sabbath service.

But on this deployment, the Torah, ark, prayer books and kippot in the ship's chapel are unused.

It is hard to know for sure how many Jewish sailors may be among the thousands of Navy personnel -- including 102 fighter jet pilots who have been training for months to take out mobile targets like Scud launchers in the western part of Iraq that would be in striking distance of Israel. While there are three Protestant and one Catholic chaplain, there is no Jewish chaplain, to whom perhaps Jewish sailors would turn for guidance. So far I have located two Jewish people -- the public affairs officer, John Oliveira, and the ship's signals chief, Adam Green.

Oliveira, who is overseeing the journalists aboard, was born Jewish and lived his life that way until three months ago, when he converted to Methodism to share the same faith as his wife, who gave birth to a daughter. He said he still identifies as Jewish, however.

"That's my heritage," he said.

Oliveira used to serve as the Jewish lay leader on board. It started during the last cruise when a Jewish sailor asked him if there would be High Holiday services.

"That's when I got with the chaplains and became the lay leader," he said. "I was not going to tell this young sailor we're not going to celebrate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur."

When a sisterhood in Detroit found out about him, they started sending care packages to the ship on the holidays. A Chanukah package brought candles and gelt. And a Passover package is en route.

Like Oliveira, Green is intermarried. He says his wife and children are planning a Seder back home. On the ship, he recites prayers for his family.

"I have 15 kids who work for me," he said, adding that he "draws spiritual guidance from inside" himself.

Green, 38, is accustomed to being a minority. "You don't see a lot of Jews joining the Navy," he said.

The non-Jewishness of the environment here is palpable, particularly at 10 p.m. each evening, when one of the ship's chaplains recites a prayer over the ship's PA system. It is nondenominational, but it feels Christian. Sailors stop in their tracks and bow their heads.

Televisions around the ship broadcast announcements for a multitude of Christian prayer groups.

Being the only reporter for an Israeli news outlet here -- and having lived in Israel for five years -- many sailors ask me what life is like there. A good number have ported in Haifa and have fond memories.

The ship's captain, Richard O'Hanlon, told me that despite our proximity to Haifa, we would not be porting in Haifa this time, though. The bus bombing a few weeks ago made that impossible. Al Qaeda has pledged to carry out attacks against nuclear-powered vessels like the one I am on, but it is too dangerous to go to Israel.

The questions I am most frequently asked are what is like to live in Israel or what will Israel do if it is attacked by Iraq. I tell them it will depend on whether the attack is conventional or nonconventional. And I stress that it is very important that pilots, like the ones on board here, take out mobile Scud missile launchers early in the military campaign. They have been training to do so for months.

But in general, people here have a very limited understanding of or curiosity about Israel.

One sailor said the United States was pursuing this war purely for Israel's sake and said Washington planned on handing control of the country over to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. 

Green said that most people don't care about Israel.

"They don't get it. It's not part of their upbringing," he said. "I have that additional worry. I don't know how this is going to play out."  

Janine Zacharia is the Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.

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