Nearly everywhere I've gone, and in everything that I've done, I've struggled to find my "place." As a child of an interfaith and interracial couple, born of an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic Latino father from Nicaragua, there were simply no other Jews "like me" while I was growing up in the 1980s in Los Angeles, or the 1990s in the Bay Area. Added to that was the fact that, being from a mostly secular family, I did not grow up with a Jewish community. Save for a few years of Jewish Day School in my early years, we were not members of a synagogue for nearly all of my childhood, I did not attend any Jewish summer camps, and I did not become Bar Mitzvah or go through confirmation.
Even with all of these obstacles, I still knew that I was Jewish. The combination of those few years of Jewish School, the stories of how my maternal grandmother's family fled Germany before the horrors of the Holocaust fully manifested, and the influence of my mother's extended family, I knew I was Jewish even if at times I didn't know what it fully meant. With all this in mind, my "ah-ha" moment, the time in my life where I began to fully embrace Judaism and my Jewish identity - and ultimately pursue the Rabbinate - came from a relatively unlikely source: the United States' Marine Corps.
As the first member of my extended family in two generations to enlist in the military, my family rightfully questioned my decision; but the reality was, that at 18 years old, having already put in 2 years of community college with no idea what I wanted to do, I needed a change. Looking back, that choice was something that would mark much of how I have lived my life since, and developed my identity, especially the Jewish parts of it. It inspired me to think "outside the box" when encountering new opportunities, to see challenge and adversity as potentialss for growth, and a realization that my struggle to easily "fit in" was a great catalyst for blessing, rather than a curse.
In the Marines, while stationed in places like Japan and Korea, I found that if I wanted to be Jewish, I had to work at it. I had to assert my identity and religious practices in a system that promotes uniformity to accomplish its mission. I was fortunate enough to be stationed on a base in Okinawa that housed the Jewish chapel, and so for the first time in my life, I attended Friday night Shabbat services regularly.
More than that, though, was the fact that the Jews I met, as a group, were the most diverse that I've ever seen. Jews from New York prayed side-by-side with Jews from tiny communities in the Midwest and the South. Black Jews, Hispanic Jews, and Asian Jews, from the most secular to the most orthodox, came together as a single community on holidays, united by our common identity as Jews and our choice to serve our country. In this circumstance, everyone was diverse, and this collected diversity strengthened my commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people.
Despite a lack of formal Jewish education, I began to serve as a lay leader in the absence of a military Rabbi, helping to coordinate and lead services (often from rote memory). By the time of the tragedy of 9/11 and my final year in uniform, I was working hand-in-hand with military Rabbis to ensure that Jews in uniform were served, whoever they were, and wherever they were in their Jewish identities. It was because of this that it was suggested that I might pursue becoming a Rabbi... something that I had never even remotely considered before.
It would be another decade before I would actually return to school and earn my bachelor's degree in Political Science (with a minor in Jewish Studies), let alone begin Rabbinical School. My original intent was to return to military service as a Jewish Chaplain, but this dream had several insurmountable complications and I was forced to abandon it. However, this too helped me realize that there was a bigger picture: while Jewish military chaplaincy is something vitally needed in our armed forces, the needs of people in uniform that drove me to that career, and the skills that I possessed that met those needs, could help serve other Jewish communities as well.
What I realized is that the small, tight-knit, and diverse Jewish community found in the military could also be found in many places around the country. In smaller synagogues that existed far away from the major urban centers and their tens or hundreds of thousands of Jews. In larger cities where the Reform Movement strives to be a big tent for people of different family, ethnic, and racial - not to mention Jewish - backgrounds. In all places where an emerging understanding of gender and sexual identity might cause some Jews hesitation to affiliate for fear of acceptance and inclusion
As I embark upon my career in the Rabbinate, I continue to appreciate all of the experiences that I have had, and I recognize that because of my unique experiences, I can offer what very few other people can. Growing up and living as a Jew of Color helps me connect with people with other minority identities to encourage communal growth. Not having experienced much active Jewish life growing up is a way to find common ground with people seeking to connect with Judaism as Jews by Choice, or reconnect as adults with similar minimal Jewish upbringing.
My service in military intelligence as a Marine, combined with my political science education has given me the tools necessary to facilitate honest, nuanced, and inclusive conversations in our current political climate. This experience has been vital in roles as a teacher and a representative of the Jewish community in interfaith, community, and government bodies. Finally, my desire to utilize my unique skills have come to fruition in a desire to meet people where they are, educate them about the wide diversity of Jewish history, thought, and practice in ways they can understand and relate to. This, in turn helps guide individuals and communities to challenge themselves and be the best Reform Jews they can be.