Stand down, soldier

One of the US's oldest army recruits becomes one of Israel's newest immigrants

Stephen November with wife Nancy at his US army graduation – after joining at age 53 (photo credit: NOVEMBER FAMILY)
Stephen November with wife Nancy at his US army graduation – after joining at age 53
(photo credit: NOVEMBER FAMILY)
Retired United States Army Colonel Stephen November has arrived in Israel for an extended, open-ended tour of duty. But unlike his previous deployments, this one is unofficial. November, who recently celebrated his 66th birthday, and his wife, Chana, have made aliya and are now fully committed, enthusiastic olim hadashim. Coming to Israel as a new immigrant after retirement is not particularly unusual. But coming to Israel as an Orthodox Jew who entered the US Army, went through basic training and was sent overseas at the age of 53 is a bit out of the ordinary.
As for his surname. November explains that this was not a result of the often-told story of Eastern European grandparents coming to America through Ellis Island in New York and getting tagged with an amusing surname by a harried immigration official who could not spell the actual family name. Rather, he says, the name – or rather, its Hungarian version – was assumed by his ancestors in the early 19th century, after Austrian Empress Maria Theresa decreed that all Jews in her realm had to have surnames. “For some reason they took the name ‘November’ in Hungarian,” he says. “I don’t know why they picked that.”
His life before joining the army in middle age was conventional enough, however. Born and raised in Brooklyn until the age of 18, November’s parents put their son through the public schools, and to Hebrew school in the afternoon. After graduating Brooklyn Technical High School, he went to Case Western Reserve University. An archeology and culture trip sponsored by the Cleveland Jewish community brought him to Israel in 1970, which he found “awesome” and “inspiring.”
The visit was so inspiring that November left school, came to Israel again a year later on his own, and found himself on Kibbutz Hamadiya in the Beit She’an valley. He worked in the fields, picked fruit and vegetables, ate his meals in the communal dining hall and bonded with members of the kibbutz. The experience, he says, turned his life around.
“It gave me the idea of my life having meaning, and the sense that we should be living for something larger than ourselves.” November returned to school and, in more or less rapid succession, graduated college, decided to go to medical school, got married, and attended medical school at State University of New York at Stonybrook, New York.
Along the way, November and his wife had four children and became religious as a result of encounters with Chabad around the time they got married.
After doing an internship in internal medicine in Miami, November switched to obstetrics and gynecology and became a resident at the Medical College of Virginia; practiced in Scranton, Pennsylvania for six years, followed by a stint at an HMO near Minneapolis. Because of a lack of Jewish schools there, the family moved to Pittsburgh, where Chana is from, where November oversaw a delivery rate of 8,000 babies a year at the University of Pittsburgh Women’s Hospital.
THEN, A 53-year-old Dr. November decided to join the US army. He explains, “At that time, in 2005, the United States was involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a push to recruit doctors. They came to our hospital and I got to talking to one of the army recruiters. Some of the things they were telling me about army medicine sounded pretty good. I was already disillusioned about private and university medicine because it got to be so money-oriented. They were telling us to see as many patients as possible, not to talk on the phone with patients because you don’t get paid for it and I didn’t find this gratifying at all.”
“Aside from that, I had a couple of friends back in Brooklyn who went to Vietnam. I wasn’t in favor of that war in the least, I was a student protester, but one of my friends was killed there. This really had an effect on me. I always felt a little empty. I had a student deferment, so I didn’t go. My friend had no deferment, had to go and got killed.”
Asked if this might have been a case of “survivor guilt,” November ponders a moment and agrees that it was. Chana adds, “I think that 9/11 made people very patriotic, too.” November concludes by saying, “I felt that I was practicing medicine in America, living comfortably, and these boys were going over there to fight. I asked myself what I was doing there, decided I could help my country and my soldiers. And I felt that this could be good for Israel also. So I joined the army.”
November soon found himself at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, undergoing a typically vigorous basic training, replete with such activities as crawling on the ground under barbed wire, dodging simulated enemy ground fire on a battle field, night navigation in the middle of nowhere with a map and compass, and of course combat training.
“Both my wife and I swim, so I was in pretty good shape. Fortunately, it was in March, not June. You can imagine how hot it gets there.” Chana, who remained in Pittsburgh while all of this was going on, recalls, “I didn’t recognize him when I first saw him. He looked like a totally different person – younger and thinner.”
As might be expected, November was the oldest soldier being trained.
“I was the granddad. The next oldest person there was around 38. They all called me ‘Papa Doc.’ But I kept up with everybody.”
As also might be expected, the experience had its challenging moments. Chana recalls, “It was a shock for him to be in the army and not be free to do what you want to do, to need permission to leave, after so many years in civilian life. I was back in Pittsburgh and I got so many phone calls from him. I had to give him pep talks.” November adds, “Sometimes I would tell her that I’d had enough and I was coming back, and she’d say, ‘No, you’re staying there. You’re not coming back.’ She even got her father to call me and give me a pep talk. But ultimately, I stayed and got through it.” November also credits a young African-American sergeant who helped him along and told him, “Papa Doc, you may not realize it, but you’re an inspiration to all these younger guys.”
November completed basic training with the rank of lieutenant- colonel, at precisely the same time that the army was opening up a new birthing center in Vicenza, Italy. So, off they went. While November was still in basic training, Chana went to investigate the town to see what if any Jewish presence could be there. The Novembers managed to find a few Jews, and soon became Jewish lay leaders of a small community. “I was always on the lookout for Jews,” Hanna recalls. They formed a minyan and were having services in their own home.
That home soon became a magnet for Jewish US army soldiers.
“Many of them had almost no Jewish background,” November says. “The only thing they knew is that their mothers told them they were Jewish, but they came to our home for Friday night services and dinner. Food is a big attraction.” Chana adds, “We became like parents to a lot of Jewish soldiers, and we’re still in touch with a lot of them.”
Three years in Italy were followed by two years at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC; three years as head of OBGYN at Fort Knox, Kentucky; another three years at West Point Military Academy Hospital; and finally at Fort Benning, Georgia – until his retirement last October 31. Now deep in the South, near the border with Alabama, the Novembers found an old and established Jewish community nearby. But constant bickering between Reform and Orthodox Jews there profoundly upset them and finally oriented them toward Israel.
“IT PUSHED me,” says Chana. “I just said ‘enough of this.’ I’d had enough of Jewish people in America fighting with each other.” Although they are aware that Jewish people also tend to fight with each other here in Israel, they are euphoric about being Jews in a Jewish land. They both express joy at seeing young proud Israelis, and being able to walk around “looking Jewish” – he with his kippa, she with her sheitel (wig) – and not be started at or made to feel somehow “different.’
Perhaps fittingly, the Novembers made aliya last November, with the concerted assistance of Nefesh b’Nefesh. Their four children and 11 grandchildren remain in the US. Although still living in an Airbnb with no definite plans for the future, the Novembers sincerely believe that they have arrived in a place God wants them to be. November tells a story that lends weight to this belief.
While at Walter Reed Army Hospital in 2008, he received an email telling him to get ready to join a battalion at Fort Hood heading for Mosul, Iraq. He went through the training process, first at Fort Sam Houston, and then out at an army desert training center in California’s Mojave Desert. There, he was trained in simulated Iraqi towns, with Iraqi immigrant actors. “It was very realistic,” November says.
“So, I’m all trained up, and I’m working with a medical platoon in the battalion preparing to go to Mosul. So comes the day we’re ready to go, and I’m sitting in a hangar at Fort Hood with around 400 other soldiers, and I’m getting a little anxious, knowing where we’re going. So I start to read a book, the Psalms. Then someone called out my name, I went into a room, and one of the officers has this paper, saying, ‘Hey man, you’re not going.’”
No one could tell him why his orders had been changed, not even the battalion commander. November went back to Washington and found out two months later that the battalion commander, some medical people and several others were blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade while on their way to meet the mayor of Mosul. The lieutenant who gave November this grim news added that had he gone to Mosul, he would have been in that doomed group of soldiers.
November regards this as a miracle, saving him for life in Eretz Yisrael.