Erica Zeiger and her husband, Brian, live in Southborough with their two sons, Andrew (3) and Shane (21 months). Catholic by birth, Erica and her husband, who was raised Jewish, are bringing up their boys to experience and participate in both of their faiths. In this interview, Erica talks about her work for the Department of Defense, her observations about Jewish life in the military, and her experiences, both national and international, have broadened her understanding of the importance of community.
Tell us about your work with the Department of Defense. How did you begin to work for the military?
I began volunteering/working for the DoD about 15 years ago. I worked for the Army and then the Air Force. I work in the family centers, and our office does a number of quality-of-life programs to assist the military and their families in adjusting to the uniqueness of military life. Our programs consist of financial readiness, relocation and transition services, career counseling, work-life challenges, and of course deployment readiness.
… [After being home with my kids for the last three years], I just received a job offer at Fort Devens, Mass. I am going to be providing financial counseling to family members who have lost members while serving in the military. It’s part of a program called Survivor Outreach Services, and I’m sure it is going to be emotional at times but very rewarding.
Did you and your husband meet in the military? Can you share some of the experiences you’ve had as an interfaith couple in some of the places you’ve been stationed, both on bases and in the surrounding communities?
Brian and I met at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J. At the time he was active-duty military; [he since] retired in 2010. He currently works at Hanscom AFB as an operations manager. The demographics of the military is fascinating, especially to someone like me who enjoys studying the similarities and differences in people.
There are not a lot of Jews in the military. I have had several interactions that are interesting. Prior to meeting my husband, I had a conversation with my landlord inGermany. This was around 2003, and they were a German couple around 60. They told me they loved America and were very grateful for our involvement during World War II. They had been to Israel three times in a “peacemaking” mission. The language barrier was hard, so I didn’t get a lot more information, but it was very interesting.
When I lived in Illinois, there was not a large Jewish population. However, the doctor that delivered Andrew was Jewish. In speaking with him, [I learned] he was involved in the Jewish community in St. Louis, about 30 minutes away. In many circumstances, I found individuals just uninformed and uneducated on Judaism. It is not that they have anything against the faith or people — they just never met anyone Jewish.
You were raised Catholic, and your husband is Jewish. Are you raising your sons Jewish? How did you and your husband decide on what path to take?
Actually, we are not raising them Jewish, but we want them to appreciate both religions and have a strong belief in faith. I want to give them the knowledge and experiences of all religions. Having traveled and lived in many places, I have learned firsthand how the lack of this can be hurtful to others. We put Andrew in a Jewish preschool first and foremost because the educators are top-notch, but [also] to provide him with the Jewish culture: songs, prayers, holidays, and so on.
How did we reach this decision is a tough question. I felt strongly about faith and baptism, but some of the dogma associated with Catholicism is not necessarily my cup of tea. Brian was not raised in a very religious family; however, he felt strongly about keeping family traditions, and most were Jewish traditions. I know that combining the two religions will not be easy, and many say it can be confusing. However, I know many who were raised with only one religion and are still confused.
My goal is to raise my boys to believe in faith, keep family traditions, and respect all.
In terms of holidays, how do you and Brian incorporate both of your traditions from your childhood into your family’s traditions?
We do celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah. My boys are so little they don’t have any idea yet, and because we have lived away and have not celebrated either holiday with family, I am sure they don’t get it. In the future I’m sure we will celebrate Christmas with my family. Brian’s mom’s (she has passed away) big holiday was Thanksgiving, so we plan on going toPhiladelphia, [where Brian grew up], each year to celebrate. As my boys get older, I would like them to fast, as Brian does, for Yom Kippur. I would like to do it as a family. Eventually we hope to visit his family and/or get connected and participate in different events such as seders.
As the non-Jewish spouse, how important do you feel it is for your family to be a part of a Jewish community? Having lived in areas where the community is small to nonexistent, can you compare what the experience is like here as opposed to what it might be like elsewhere in the country?
I think it is very important to be part of the Jewish community, mainly to have a sense of traditions and feel connected to community and family. I want my boys to have similar experiences when they visit my husband’s family and not feel as if they are strangers visiting another family.
It is interesting to look at the Jewish experience here as opposed to other places I have lived. Germany was quite an experience. In my experience, the German people just wanted to move forward, and there was very little conversation about the Holocaust. However, when I visited Dachau concentration camp, I was amazed not just at the atrocities that happened but the detail and care that went into maintaining the camp to show the authenticity and history, no matter how terrible it was.
The Midwest was interesting not just in terms of Jews but any ethnic group. You really had to move into the larger cities to find a community. … Believe it or not, when I lived in the Midwest, being Italian[-American] was very foreign to many people. … The military base we were stationed at did have a rabbi, as did the one in New Jersey, and offered many opportunities to experience the religion. In one instance, the Jewish community opened up seder dinner to all.
Again, the military does a lot for people to experience all cultures and religions. [But] one thing that is important to note is that when Jewish members deploy to regions in the Middle East, they are advised to NOT put “Jewish” as their religion. Brian has dog tags from Saudi Arabia that say “No religious affiliation.”
You and your husband have both been stationed in many places. How did you decide on Southborough? Do you worry about frequent moves now that you have children, or is this just a part of your life that you accept and embrace? If you were to relocate to an area with a more homogenous population than this one, what are some things you think might change in your sons’ experience?
My husband retired from the military last year, and we were hoping to move to theBoston or Philadelphia area. He was offered a job here first, and we had friends in the area who helped us find a place. We liked the area [and] the proximity to work and my family in Rhode Island.
We plan on staying in this area as long as we have employment. We had our kids closer to Brian’s eligibility to retire, and for us it was best. We didn’t want our kids to move so often, and honestly, we were tired of it. I do have many, many friends who have moved, and their kids are very worldly, open-minded, and cultured due to seeing so many different places. I once attended a conference, and these kids were called “global souls,” and I thought it was fitting.