In the beginning, he may seem like your average NCSY success story. Sgt. Robert Williger joined NCSY at age 14, coming from a conservative and irreligious background, and got very involved right away. He rose through the ranks from president of his hometown chapter, Morton Grove, to co-regional president in Midwest NCSY. He was NCSY-er of the year in 1991, the same year he started keeping Shabbat and Kashrut thanks to the influence of Rabbi AY Weinberg, the former regional director of the Chicago region.
After learning in Israel at Yeshivat Ohr Dovid for a year, he went to Yeshiva University. After he graduated, he moved back home to Chicago and worked as an options trader at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. All throughout college and while living in Chicago, Williger remained involved with NCSY. Williger then made aliyah, and spent 6 years in Israel working for IDT. There he met his wife, Yael. All sounds pretty normal, right?
That’s the end of the regular, ordinary part of Williger’s life. In 2007 he moved back to America and in 2009 he enlisted in the United States Army as a combat medic. What?! Yes, the U.S. army. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, since I was 16 or 17,” says Willger. “But I decided to go the normal route. I tried to enlist in Israel but I was too old, so in the U.S. I decided to do what I can to serve my country.” Williger was in between jobs and trying to figure out what route to take. “The economic situation in 2009 definitely played a role in my decision to enlist,” says Williger.
Basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky, was very restrictive. “They bring you in at night and they keep you up late and make you dump all your belongings on the floor,” explains Williger. “I had my talis and tefillin with me, so I said to the drill sergeant ‘I’m happy to show you what I have in my bag, but they are religious items and I can’t put them on the floor.’ He said to me ‘Don’t worry, we’ll respect your religion.’”
Although there were some sacrifices Williger had to make, for the most part the U.S. army was very accommodating to his religious needs. He was able to arrange for ready-to-eat Kosher meals and had a Pesach seder in the barracks with Kosher for Passover food. There was one other Jewish soldier in his unit who happened to be interested in learning more about Judaism, so Williger learned parsha with him at night.
His first assignment was in Fort Carson, Colorado with the 4th infantry division, a combat arms unit. Then, in July 2012, Williger was deployed to Afghanistan. He worked at the aid station in a remote town in Afghanistan and dealt with general sickness and injury, occasionally joining the cavalry scouts on patrols and missions. While he was stationed in Afghanistan, a number of Jewish organizations sent him Kosher food and he made Kiddush and hamotzi on Friday night with the one other Jewish soldier in his unit. “Overall I’ve encountered a lot of respect from people for my practices and beliefs,” says Williger.
The second place Williger was stationed at in Afghanistan was more dangerous. “We were 10 American and 10 Afghan soldiers on a hilltop. We would constantly get shot at and were under constant alert,” says Williger. He describes the trenches they lived in and how the Taliban planted many roadside bombs because they wanted the Americans to leave. “We trained the Afghan army to fight the Taliban, and provided medical help to civilians, especially children, in order to build good will with the people,” says Williger.
Now Sergeant Williger is living in Fort Belviour, Virginia with his wife and 2 children, Maya and Zachary, working a desk job for the army in a unit that is not deployable. Although his contract ends in December 2014, things are pretty much back to normal for him. Williger is a classic example of a Kiddush Hashem and proof that it is possible to follow your dream and still remain strong in your religious practice.