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This Orthodox Jewish Naval Commander Made a Sunrise Minyan on An Aircraft Carrier

After 26 years in the U.S. Armed Forces, Naval Commander Dana Griffin has been deployed all over the world. But his favorite memories are of davening at sunrise on the weather deck of ships at sea. “There is nothing more spectacular than being on deck at sunrise and davening. You get a chance to watch God’s creation unfold for the day.”

Commander Griffin retired in 1995 and his career didn’t always allow for his observance in an overt way, so he relished it where he could. “I kept kosher by investigating what was brought on ships and how it was prepared. On a Naval ship, the Bakery is normally separate from the other kitchens.” Griffin found that every ingredient brought on board to make baked goods had an OU kosher symbol and the equipment and utensils were only used for baking. The peanut butter and strawberry jam all had an OU too. Disposable plastic utensils were available. “Happily, I love peanut butter and jelly.” While even a love for PBJ can’t feed a person full-time, it made all the difference for Griffin. He initially brought dried salami and tuna to supplement his diet, but soon realized that there were commissaries available to him in places like Italy and Spain where he could purchase additional kosher items. “There was always milk too, and coffee, which you live on if you’re in the Navy.” For Shabbos, Griffin followed the rules that Israeli military follows. “If I was scheduled for a watch, then I stood my watch. I followed that guideline.” Holiday observance was much easier. “For Yom Tov, I would do favors for other guys and get them to stand my duty on those days.” Griffin is often approached for advice by young Orthodox Jews seeking a career in the military. “I tell them, ‘it’s not gonna be a frum environment. There are some compromises you’ll find yourself having to make. You’d better know the rules and prepare in advance.’”

After growing up in an Episcopalian household, Griffin started to search for his religious path as a teenager. “I was seriously considering Jewish conversion when I joined the Army. I didn’t not have access to an Orthodox rabbi then.” But once he switched to Navy flight training in Pensacola, Florida at 21-years-old, the rabbi of the Orthodox shul there taught him and led his conversion. Griffin’s wife, who grew up as an observant Jew in Richmond, Virginia, married him soon after. Griffin’s family was very understanding of his commitment to his country and becoming Jewish. “My wife is very positive person. She’s a firstborn to a mother and father who were both leaders of the Richmond Jewish community. My wife followed suit.” Wherever they went, Mrs. Griffin would search out the local Jewish community. “We have more friends from communities around the world than in the military, because that’s who we spent time with.” After retiring, the Griffins lived in Kemp Mill, Maryland and returned to Richmond in 2005. One daughter lives there and another is in Milwaukee. Griffin is now a proud grandfather to ten and great-grandfather to eight.

Griffin’s unusual career began back in 1968, when he enlisted in the Army. After four years of service through the Vietnam War, he intraservice transferred his commission to the Navy and then flew for them for the next 22 years. While the wrong service branch Army commission was due to a snafu on the part of the Army, at the same time, “the Navy showed up and offered a deal: they were accepting army and air force aviators to come a fly for the navy. It was a chance to jump ship, so to speak.” Griffin went on to fly 22 different aircraft and served aboard 12 ships. “I was everywhere. My first tours were in the Pacific: Okinawa, Japan, The Phillippines, Thailand. I flew for the Shah of Iran in the mid-70s, just prior to the [revolution]. I was not allowed into Saudi Arabia because I was a Jew.” After that, Griffin returned to the East Coast and was assigned to tours in Norfolk, Virginia and Patuxent River, Maryland, where he reestablished tactical drones on battleships. He also was given command of the Navy’s European Command Center in London, where he spent four years before coming back to Norfolk and retiring after more years there as Deputy Chief of Staff.

Griffin’s family have been involved with the country’s military history for almost 400 years. His ancestors fought in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and just about every conflict since, up to and including Iraq and Afghanistan. “My family has always belonged to the local milita. My great grandfather went to Cuba in the Spanish American War. My Grandfather served on Sub-Chasers in World War I. His father was a Tank Company Commander in World War II.” Griffin’s uncles were Marine Aviators, a Coast Guard Captain while another was a submariner. There are three cousins who served in the military, and four nieces who have served. He now has grandchildren considering going into the military.

The antisemitism that Griffin experienced got better midway through his career. “Fleet Commanders (Vice Admirals) would send messages out before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to all commanders that all Jewish personnel needed to have time off. When it got time to be Yom Tov, we would scratch up a minyan out of 5000 guys [on a carrier]. They came from everywhere. There was a kid who was an aviation bosun’s mate from Williamsburg, NY. This kid could lein like nobody’s business. We had guys from engineering. Stokers, firemen, pilots, flight officers.” But it wasn’t always so easy. On Griffin’s first tour in long range patrol, his squadron had an antisemite/atheist who did crew placement. “All the Mormons and I were placed in one crew. We called ourselves the ‘All Mormon One Jew Crew.’” While they were overseas, CINCPACFLT threw a surprise tactics exam. Griffin’s crew scored the highest. The antisemite didn’t say another word to him after that.

It was hard for Griffin to weather the Navy’s promotion structure as a Jew, “The people in charge were not the people I was socializing with.” But he is proud to say that it had a silver lining. “I won my promotions through merit. I can honestly look at myself in the mirror and say I won it fair and square.”

While developing the tactical drones, the men under Griffin were always able to obtain what ever equipment that was needed on behalf of their squadron to get the job done and ensure a successful program. “Once they even got me a staff car. Not even my boss had one.” Griffin praises his men’s ingenuity and hard work. “Out of my 50 guys, every one of them was deserving of an achievement medal.” It was a disappointment that he was only allowed five to give out between them. “The Navy tries to keep our deployment time below 50 percent and [my crew] were at 90 percent for 2 years. But I did whatever I could to help further the careers of my men. My father passed on to me the following leadership guidance: ‘Eat Last, Sleep Last, Lead from the Front.’ I made sure my subordinates did the same.” The end result was that Griffin’s command in London won the Navy’s Golden Anchor Award two years in a row for Leadership. That care and guardianship extends to his own family as well. One of the things that Griffin repeatedly says to his grandchildren is, “We’re going to be the head and not the tail. To give and not take. Perceived is as good as done. If those around you perceived that you did it, then you have.” He hopes that they and other young people can adopt that perspective in giving back to their country, and their communities.

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