Joe Buchanan with soldiers at Fort Benning

A Southern Jewish Country Singer Thanks Soldiers Through Song

Why praying with our troops is so moving for this musician

As a touring artist, I get to shake a lot of hands and hear a lot of stories. It’s a real pleasure to spend time with folks from all over, but hands-down one of the biggest honors I experience is getting to thank our veterans and soldiers for their incredible service to our country.

Hearing their stories and sharing moments of prayer in congregations, airports, and everywhere in between has been something I’ve held as very sacred. Their commitment to safeguard our freedoms should be matched, in my opinion, by our commitment to do our best for them. So, when the opportunity recently arose to sing and pray with 600 soldiers arose in the middle of a concert tour I was doing for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), there was no convincing needed.

There are a lot of amazing people at Temple Israel in Columbus, Georgia. The amount of good that congregation does both internally and as members of the greater Columbus area is inspiring. Captain Block, a veteran of our US Navy, is one of those inspiring Columbus folks. After my concert there, he came up and offered what had to be the firmest handshake I’ve ever had and invited me to join them for a very special morning the next day. He explained that for the past few years, he and other members of Temple Israel have been doing outreach at US Army Fort Benning. They lead a Jewish prayer service, answer questions about Judaism, and have breakfast with the men and women stationed there. It’s a highly attended event by both Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers, all gathering to spend a little holy time together.

So, the next morning, we rolled into Fort Benning and headed up to the Maneuver Center of Excellence. I have no doubt that I stuck out like a sore thumb in my cowboy hat with a guitar slung across my back. The prayer space inside was a massive room with hundreds of chairs in perfect rows. An ark was stationed beneath a sign that declared “meeting the challenge.”

Captain Block gave me the run down on how services were going to go and handed me a copy of the Armed Forces Prayer Book for Jewish Personnel. Then the troops came in. A few wrapped tefillin or donned tallitot. One solider came up with a huge smile on his face and asked if he could play my guitar afterwards.

“Absolutely,” I told him.

Then, we got right to praying. We praised God together and gave thanks for the blessings in our lives. I told the story about how I came to Judaism, how that discovery changed everything, and then shared a few songs. We prayed for their safety, our country, and for Israel. The Judaism 101 class that followed touched on what we believe and what it means to be Jewish. We talked about beating the drum for your values and what helps to guide those values. These young soldiers were inquisitive, respectful, kind, and an example for all of us when it comes to accepting one another. It didn’t matter who was Jewish or not. It didn’t matter what anyone looked like. They were just together and that was what mattered.

We had an amazing time and when they put in a song request, I didn’t hesitate.  If you’ve never heard 600 soldiers singing “Old Town Road,” you don’t know what you’re missing. And that soldier who asked to play my guitar? He was fantastic! That young man got after it and entertained his brothers and sisters like a champ. They were picking up everything he was putting down and it was wonderful to sit alongside them and enjoy it.

One soldier came up and handed me an origami unicorn that he made during my talk. He said he hadn’t heard anyone like me before and that I was like a spiritual unicorn. I’ve been called a lot of things in my time but that is a new one for me. I learned a lesson that day, myself: You may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can be someone’s spiritual unicorn.

I don’t know how many hands I shook that day, but I know it wasn’t enough. Our service men and women deserve the best that we can give them. They deserve our hands and our hearts. That morning in Georgia was an eye-opener for me and It was an honor to join Captain Block and Temple Israel in supporting our troops. I can’t wait to bring more faith-based services and shows to our soldiers here and abroad.

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