The few and the proud just increased by one. And he’s Jewish.
Becoming a United States Marine is an uncommon act among members of the tribe. However, Pvt. Josh Backelman of New City recently completed basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Center on Parris Island, S.C., becoming a member of America’s elite fighting force.
“People knew I was Jewish, but it didn’t make a difference,” said Backelman, 18, who graduated from Clarkstown High School South in 2012.
Religious identity was pretty fluid, he noted, with about 20 to 30 people attending Jewish services each week. About half actually were Jewish, while others just wanted to hang out with friends, said Backelman, a regular at New City Jewish Center’s Shabbat services since he was a preschooler. Others visited different services each week, wanting to “try out the different religions.”
That is not uncommon, according to Rabbi Harold Robinson, a retired rear admiral and director of the Jewish Chaplains Council. About half of all recruits do not list any religion. There are about 10,000 Jeiwsh members of the armed services, Robinson said, representing just under 1 percent of all active military personnel.
The Marines and the U.S. Navy have traditionally been less accommodating of Jewish recruits, said Robinson, so Jews have gravitated toward serving in the Army and the Air Force. All branches now try to accommodate religious practice to a certain extent, providing kosher meals and allowing kippot, noted Robinson.
But do religion and service collide? “All the time,” Robinson said. “There are certain contingencies. Halacha [Jewish law] provides exceptions for the military’s extenuating circumstances.”
Backelman has wanted to serve in the military since he was a little boy. When he enlisted, it was the Marines that attracted him. “I always thought they commanded higher respect, and I wanted to be like that,” he said.
Basic training was bruising, both physically and mentally, Backelman said. The constant yelling, the tasks repeated over and over again for no apparent reason, are designed to break you down. “You get so frustrated and it makes you angry,” he said.
“Everyone gets at everyone else’s throat. You have to put that aside and deal with it as it comes,” Getting through and graduating is something in which he takes great pride.
Most people have encouraged him about his decision to join the Marine, although it is at odds with those of his college-attending peers. His parents, Mike and Lisa, were unnerved by the idea of their eldest becoming a Marine, but they have been supportive, he said.
Backelman, who is contracted for four years of active duty, heads next to Camp LeJeune, N.C., for combat training. Following that, he will get specific job training before deploying overseas.
There wasn’t much in Backelman’s Jewish background that could have prepared him for the rigors of Marine life, he said.
“I haven’t been yelled and screamed at a lot in temple,” he said, laughing.