Washington, D.C. --
Petty Officer 3rd Class Gary Facteau hunches over his smart phone, engrossed in its content, barely noticing the stares of passers-by. His camouflage uniform stands in bold relief to his stark white surroundings. His rank pinned precisely to his collar; U.S. Navy proudly stitched to his chest; Star of David necklace hanging around his neck; black yarmulke snuggly on his head.
The 24-year-old Navy corpsman spends the few precious spare moments in his busy clinic schedule studying religious texts.
A little more than a year ago, while stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., Facteau decided to dedicate his life to Judaism. Since then, he has been maneuvering between his burgeoning faith, his Baptist roots and his duties in the Navy.
Facteau said Judaism caught his eye after his own religious experiences left him wanting, but the small town of Jacksonville outside the base and in the heart of the Bible-belt was a less-than-ideal environment for his conversion.
"It was difficult in North Carolina," said the sailor. "If you make a life altering change, the people around you start asking a lot of questions. Then I got orders to Marine Barracks Washington and the stars aligned because there is a strong Jewish community in the area."
D.C.’s Jewish collective emboldened Facteau to take a leap of faith. Soon after arriving to the District in August, he contacted the Barracks chaplain to find a local synagogue and has been dawning his modest black cap ever since.
"I wear the yarmulke every day, both in and out of uniform," explained Facteau. "Nobody has ever said anything about it, but I do get a lot of looks."
Facteau has had to adapt to more than just the looks. His conversion requires the supervision of a rabbi and the observance of many new customs. With more than 600 Mitzvot, or commandments, that govern the Jewish faith, Facteau said he has had to work hard to strike a balance between his personal faith and his duties to the Corps and the Navy.
As a corpsman at the medical clinic at the Washington Navy Yard, Facteua helps support approximately a thousand Marines at the Barracks. Day-to-day operations can be taxing. Barracks Marines support dozens of events each week and corpsmen frequently travel in tow. This demanding schedule often conflicts with his religious requirements, compelling him to forgo religious formality for daily practicality.
"It’s difficult sometimes because I have prayers that I am supposed to say, usually in the morning when I have clinic hours" said Facteau. "You’re supposed to pray at the same time as those at synagogue, but sometimes I’ll pray in the early morning because I won’t have time later."
Longer junkets are especially difficult for Facteau, like when he traveled with the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps to the Texas State Fair in October. Facteau spent three weeks with the D&B in Dallas as they performed and helped the Corps recruit. Performances were a daily occurrence and the weekends were no exception. The three-week tour also coincided with the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Facteau missed out on some of the observances, but the D&B helped him find a local synagogue and ferried him back and forth to many services. He said he is dedicated to both his duties and the Jewish faith, but understands that at times the two will conflict. He also said reconciling those differences is made easier with the backing of his command.
"It’s hard balancing the two," Facteau said. "But, it’s a lot easier knowing the Barracks supports me."
There’s an app for that
The yarmulke atop Facteau’s head and the necklace he always wears never let him forget his goal, and the phone in his pocket helps him get there. Facteau has blended theology with technology by using some of the many religion-oriented applications now available for his smart phone to help alleviate some of the difficulties with his conversion.
"My phone is the lifeline to my conversion," said Facteau. "I have a couple of books at home, but my main source of prayers is my phone."
With a few swipes and taps, Facteau has access to apps that help him memorize Jewish prayers, learn Hebrew and even keep him eating right.
For the 120-pound sailor who loves to eat, the latter can be the most difficult. Although numerous rules dictate the preparation and consumption of food for orthodox Jews, Facteau said the one he finds the most difficult to stick to is from the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, concerning meat and dairy. He can’t cook meat and dairy on the same stove and can’t consume dairy right after eating meat. Many of his Jewish friends wait up to 12 hours before consuming dairy after meat, but he only waits one hour.
"I get hungry," Facteau said, "That’s kind of my human side coming out. I want to do what’s right, but I want to do the easy thing as well."
For some, these changes may be too difficult, but Facteau’s faith has tempered his perspective. "I don’t think of it as never having a cheeseburger again," he said. "I think of it as becoming Jewish."
Hard habits to break
Having grown accustomed to work, Facteau balances his job and his religious convictions every day. What he still can’t get the hang of is not working. Each week from sunset on Friday to the following night, Facteau observes Shabbats or the Jewish day of rest reserved for spiritual reflection.
Facteau explained that on this day Jewish people are not allowed to use electricity, fire or even drive a car. All these things are considered work, and Jewish people are not supposed to work on their day of rest.
"My biggest problem is lights," Facteau confessed. "Turning on a light switch is considered work, so you can’t do it on Shabbats, but turning on a light when you walk into a room is a hard habit to break. I will walk into a room and flip on a light and immediately know something is wrong. Then it hits me, ‘The light wasn’t on!’ That’s one of the hardest things right now."
Since Facteau is not Jewish yet, he is not bound by Jewish laws. But because of his desire to convert, he strives to abide by them.
With each passing day, Facteau’s Baptist roots become unanchored and he gains a firmer footing in his Judaic convictions. He said he thinks he will continue to have his gaffs and miscues as he moves closer to his goal, but is not too hard on himself.
"My rabbi said its okay…," laughed Facteau. "I’m not Jewish yet."