Our Woman in Kabul

Risa Simon, Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy, fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, is an intelligence officer now serving in Kabul, Afghanistan. She’s also, as it happens, a Lilith subscriber. On one of her rare leaves in the States, just before her 39th birthday last month, she visited the Lilith office with her husband. (They met on JDate after he saw a picture of her on top of Mt. Fuji.)

Lilith: How’d a nice Jewish girl from South Florida who went to Hebrew day school end up in the Navy? Are you an adrenaline junkie?

Risa Simon: Yes. From the time I was little I wanted to be a Marine, but I was diagnosed with asthma, so the Marines rejected me. The Navy scooped me right up.

Lilith: What was your life like as a girl?

RS: My family made aliyah when I was 12. At Ulpan Akiva in Netanya, I roomed with a Palestinian Arab and a Moroccan Hebrew-speaker. Every seed of my interest in language and the Middle East was born in that period. Then I came back to the U.S. after high school.

Lilith: How is it being Jewish in the countries where you’ve served?

RS: Because of the sexism my sisters and mother and I experienced in Orthodox services in Israel — asked to leave so there’d be room for more men — I walked away from Jewish identification until I joined the Navy. It took being alone in Masawa, Japan, for me to reaffirm my Jewish roots. Then, in 2004, I had an adult bat mitzvah in Florida, in my Navy full-dress blues, in a ceremony I wrote myself.

I became a lay leader for Camp Victory in Iraq, since there was no permanent Jewish chaplain. The only visiting chaplains were Orthodox. One came in and put up a mechitza, running roughshod over everyone else’s practice. I’m often in dispute with the Orthodox chaplains; many of them cannot minister effectively to women. The Navy has no gender distinctions, and it infuriates me to be told I cannot count in a minyan!

Another example: there I am in Baghdad, working 14 hours a day, and the engineers say they really want to help by building us a sukkah. They go ahead and build it in all that heat — and an Orthodox rabbi comes along and, rather than thanking the base engineers for a beautiful sukkah, says there is a tree branch hanging over it and they’ll have to move the sukkah or cut down the tree. Cut down a tree in Iraq!!! Total lack of touch with reality.