Tsvi Mark: From Yeshiva to West Point

The New York Times recently reported on the first Orthodox acceptee to West Point, except they missed a couple students along the way.

Gedalyah Reback ,

IDF soldiers
IDF soldiers
Tomer Weinberg

The New York Times yesterday published an article about Rachelle David, speaking of her as the "first-ever charge from an Orthodox Yeshiva to West Point." She will soon be graduating North Shore Hebrew Academy High School and entering West Point in the next academic year. Her qualifications are likely to be very impressive, yet there is a problem with the story - she is not the first Yeshiva high school graduate to enter West Point.

A few have over the last several years, says Tsvi Mark, who made aliyah in 2009 after attending West Point for one academic year.

"There's a joke at West Point that 50% of the first class was Jewish and it's been downhill sense."

There were two graduates in the first class.

"There are about 80 Jewish cadets there right now," says Mark. He also mentions two other students who either finished their West Point program or are near finishing.

"There's Gary Schwartzman, who did graduate and currently is serving in the US Army. Then there's Menachem Felsenberg, the son of the former West Point chaplain."

Mark is from a military family. His father served in the United States Air Force for 21 years. He graduated Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy high school before spending a year in Israel, then accepting an offer from West Point. He admits though that the New York Times was not too far off.

"As far as I know, Gary Schwartz and I were the first Orthodox Jews at West Point since 1800. There's no one that at the least I can think of, of recent memory."

There was a lot of novelty to their presence at the academy. Many school officials were aware there were some religious issues to balance out, but many admitted to Mark that they needed to be schooled in Orthodox Judaism themselves in order to begin meeting him halfway.

"The first year is supposed to be challenging. One of your first challenges was discipline-wise: establishing a set order as part of a system."

"Being an Orthodox cadet at West Point is incredibly hard. It was very hard at first to manage the caloric intake for instance with kashrut considerations. It was definitely a big challenge. At first it's seven days a week."

Although he expected Saturdays to not be downtime, it was still a massive culture shock. 

"Shabbat is not off, which for me was a bit of a [culture] shock. Also for a lot of the Conservative Jews there. Then I also realized if I wanted to be religious and be a field officer, something would have to go."

"I decided to compromise on West Point."

This is not to say he ever experienced any anti-Semitism there. He says he never did. There was question about regulation in terms of wearing a kippah that eventually went to the school's superintendent (who as a 3-star general, is the highest ranking officer on campus). But this was a matter of protocol and hardly discrimination. He was eventually given permission in any case. He and his friend did receive a lot of questions from fellow cadets, though.

"I had no issues. I had plenty of questions, though. I walked in with a kippah on and it was like I was a unicorn. One student from Georgia said I was the second Jew he had ever seen."

Speaking to other Jews have gone through the school, he says you will often find they need to make some compromises in order to get through the hardest part of the program. Not having had (so many?) affiliated Orthodox Jews who had gone through proper Yeshiva high school, there had not been - to Mark's knowledge - any other cases before his and Schwarzman's of Orthodox Jews needing accommodation with Shabbat and Kashrut.

When asked if he ever counseled any rabbis who were familiar with military halakhah, he says they said his particular circumstances were difficult to justify bending the rules in order to train.

"The big difference between Israel and the US is that a lot of my issues came up in training. The halakhah can't be so flexible on that. The halakhah is flexible in life-saving situations, in emergencies."

Ultimately, it was his desire to come to Israel that won out, and he moved here in August 2009, being accepted into the Golani Brigade by October.

"It was a very hard decision to leave," says Mark of West Point, though he was able to have a fulfilling time in the two and a half years he served the IDF. Serving between 2009 and 2012, he was involved in the 2011 border clashes when Palestinian marchers tried to breach the border in protest of Israeli independence. But this was not enough time, says Mark.

"To be honest, I begged and pleaded to go to Officers Course. I was saying 'I'll take anything. I'll be stationed in God-knows-where.'"

They only agreed to a six-month extension, but nothing more. Frustrated, Mark actually reopened dialogue with West Point, where his situation was a bit out of the ordinary but the school was still enthusiastic to possibly have him back.

To be a commissioned officer in the US military, you cannot have dual citizenship. For conventional students who do four straight years, the request to drop any additional citizenships is usually made in the later half of the second academic year or in the third year. In Mark's case, because he was actually older than the standard admission age for second year students and possibly because of the timing of his acquisition of Israeli citizenship, he was being asked to relinquish it upon reentry.

Ultimately, his fiancee kept him grounded in Israel. 

The main issue he feels he faced in the IDF as a lone soldier was actually protektzia - knowing influential people who can 'protect' you and curry favor for you for jobs, positions, etc. Along the lines of not having family to go home to every weekend in Israel, there is also this lack of networking.

"I would define the problem like this: you know somebody, there's no one on my side to do that. I have a friend who had someone to go to when something critical came up - I didn't."

He speaks of one unfortunate situation when his grandfather died around the time of his first course graduation. Scheduled to leave for a squad leader's course in just three weeks, he asked his commander if he should feel free to take all 30 days of his entitled mourning leave or to return early for the course. Not having seen family in over a year, he still rushed back for the course, only to find his spot had not been reserved even though the course had not started yet.

"Then there was another spot that was available. Someone else from my training course knew a colonel who called my commander and pressured him to get this other soldier into the squad leaders course. The guy who fought for the spot ended up going to jail for abusing his soldiers anyway. He was stripped of his commission anyway."

"I eventually did do the course, but much later."

Currently, Mark is studying at the IDC School of Business and Finance, but he still loves the military.

"If they called me today, I would go. Almost any offer I would be willing to take."



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