NEW YORK — Private First Class Zachary Zeff was awestruck when he first laid eyes on the new United States embassy in Jerusalem this past summer.
Zeff wasn’t officially a Marine then — he was, in fact, several weeks shy of reporting to Parris Island, South Carolina, for boot camp. It was simply his last summer as a civilian, a summer that included a Birthright trip followed by a visit with his older sister in Tel Aviv.
But it was in Jerusalem on the new embassy grounds where Zeff’s pride in being American and Jewish came together.
“It was awesome. All embassies are guarded by Marines, and so it was just so cool to see them. It was exciting and I felt so proud,” Zeff said.
Now officially a Marine after completing boot camp in November, Zeff is on a 10-day leave at home in Florida before reporting to the fort for advanced infantry training. Zeff spoke with The Times of Israel about being the only Jewish recruit in his company of 600 and how much he misses Israel.
Zeff grew up in Davie, Florida, just west of Fort Lauderdale. As a triplet, along with his two brothers Nathan and Stephen, Zeff went to Jewish day school for a couple of years. After their bar mitzvah, the brothers left Hebrew school and Zeff’s Judaism was more relegated to large family gatherings for the holidays, he said.
Unlike his brothers, he knew from a young age he would enlist in the military — though it took a few years to commit. After high school he attended college for two years while Nathan pursued firefighting and Stephen began working in network engineering.
Finally, Zeff said, he decided it was “now or never.”
“I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t do it now. I chose the Marines. When I was younger maybe [I liked them] because of their uniforms, but later it was the professionalism I saw in them and the idea that they were the toughest,” Zeff said via telephone from his home in South Florida.
At 23, Zeff is slightly older than the average recruit. Inevitably his fellow recruits nicknamed him “Dad” and “Papa.” Zeff doesn’t mind, and said his age helped him through some of the more grueling aspects of boot camp.
“Marine boot camp has the reputation for being the hardest. Obviously, there’s no easy part of boot camp, but I think having that mature mindset helped me know where I was and why I was there. Whenever anybody was crying and whining, I just embraced it,” Zeff said.
Zeff’s attitude has paid off. He completed training on November 30 as an honor graduate. Honor graduate awards go to recruits who demonstrate fitness, strong leadership skills and are an overall example of what it is to be a Marine. Or, as Zeff put it, “You make sure the platoon gets it done in a timely manner.”
Zeff’s parents, stepparents, brothers — Zeff is a triplet — and girlfriend all attended his graduation. His sister Rebecca Zeff couldn’t make it, but watched live stream videos from Israel.
Zeff isn’t the first in his family to serve. His grandfather, Paul T. Zeff, was an Army combat medic during World War II, and his uncle served in the Air Force.
His grandfather died when Zeff was 10, before Zeff had a chance to really speak with him about his wartime experience. However, he kept his grandfather’s “Prayer book for Jews in the US Armed Forces” on his shelf next to his other Marine books and knickknacks.
“It was pretty special to see. A siddur [prayer book] that had been to Normandy and back was sitting in Zach’s room as he prepared to go to boot camp himself,” said Rebecca Zeff in a telephone call from her home in Tel Aviv.
“We normally keep our grandfather’s WWII memorabilia all together — a photo album, his glasses, his bronze star. So even if my grandpa was a distant memory for Zach, I think he admires him and is connected to him more than he realizes,” she said.
Rebecca said she made her younger brother promise he’d attend services on Sundays, the only day available for worship, during boot camp. He kept his word. Each week, when recruits called out which service they’d attend, it never failed to surprise a fellow recruit to learn Zeff was Jewish.
“Surprisingly there were some who had never met a Jewish person before. Most of them were curious about it, and had a lot of questions,” he said.
Jewish Americans have served in the US armed forces dating back to before the Colonial Era. Jews comprise about 2.2 percent of US population, and about one-third of one percent of the US military. Of the Jews who serve, about 1% serve in the Marine Corps.
According to a 2017 survey done by the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, there are currently 10,000 Jews in active duty forces and 5,000 in the guard and reserves. Some 50% of those serving are officers — a staggering statistic, said Anna Selman, program director and public relations coordinator for the Jewish War Veterans of the USA. Over 80,000 Jews are estimated to have served in the US Armed Forces since 9/11.
Because there are few Jews in the armed forces, Rebecca encouraged Zeff to go on Birthright and then visit her in Tel Aviv.
“I thought it would be good for him to come, clear his mind before he went to training. There aren’t that many Jews in the military and I wanted him to know he’s Jewish before he went in and not lose himself in it [training],” Rebecca said.
Of all the places they visited, it was Jerusalem that left the deepest impression.
“When we saw the Old City and then the embassy his eyes lit up. He was so proud to be both [Jewish and American] there. There were hearts and glitter in his eyes,” she said.