Unlike most of her friends when she was growing up in Maplewood, Jordana Mallach was interested in military service. She toyed with joining the ROTC as an undergraduate at Union College in Schenectady, NY.
But she waited until graduate school at the State University of New York in Albany to sign up for an Army career that would include a year on the supply lines in Afghanistan.
“The Army always interested me. It was in 2002, after 9/11, so I joined the National Guard,” Mallach told NJ Jewish News.
Nearly a decade later, Mallach served in Afghanistan from February to December of 2010.
In a telephone interview from her home in Lake Placid, NY, she called the assignment “very challenging” as she discussed her service and her corollary assignment as a Jewish lay leader at Bagram Air Base, home to some 30,000 military personnel and civilian contractors in Afghanistan.
“We had Friday night services, a kabalat Shabbat, and a meal together. Usually we had 10 to 15 people at a Friday night dinner,” she said. “We had a rabbi there on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and we had 25 or 30 people.”
Her early years at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange (now Golda Och Academy) and membership in Oheb Shalom Congregation and, later, Congregation Beth El, both in South Orange, were, in a sense, basic training for that mission.
So, too, was the influence of her father, David Mallach, the managing director of the Commission on Jewish People at the UJA-Federation of New York. Between 1986 and 2003 he served as executive director of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
“When Jordana was in Afghanistan it was a pretty stressful year for us,” her father told NJJN. “Obviously there was a war going on, and we had a daughter over there. We are now very relieved she’s back.”
During her year abroad, Capt. Mallach struggled to keep close contact with her immediate family — her husband, Andrew Teig, and their four-year-old daughter, Cayla.
“Obviously the impact on us was tremendous,” she said.
Mother and daughter stayed in touch by cellphone, but because there was no high-speed Internet connection, they could not communicate via Skype.
“It was very stressful for Cayla,” her mother said. “She would get upset when the picture was out or when she could see me but not hear me.”
First assigned to engineering — “hasty construction, road repair, road clearing, and debris removal,” she said — she was transferred to the 86th Infantry Brigade in January 2009.
As logistics officer, “my job was very specific,” she said. “It was to make sure that American soldiers and their coalition partners — I worked with 13 different nations — had what they needed to do their job. My job was to make things better for coalition forces and make sure they had things they needed. If you start to look at the bigger picture, it is easy to wonder what the purpose is. I didn’t have much time to focus on that.”
“There are no front lines and back lines,” she recalled. “A lot of rockets are shot from outside the base into the base, and rarely are they fatal. It is more of something the enemy does to disrupt our Internet.”
Before she was deployed to Afghanistan, Mallach recorded a set of DVDs for her daughter, containing everything from her reading Cayla’s favorite stories to reciting Shabbat prayers on camera.
“These were the things I was normally there for,” she said.
‘I have a job to do’
Back in Lake Placid, Mallach is now a company commander in the Vermont National Guard, on active duty one weekend each month and two weeks a year.
“At this point I expect to be in the National Guard for 20 years,” she said. “The military guarantees what they call ‘stability,’ so I wouldn’t be deploying back to Afghanistan for three years.
“But since we’ve come home, my unit has been mobilized for two separate floods and a hurricane in Vermont.”
Putting her overseas training to work, Mallach mobilized convoys to areas stricken with heavy storm damage.
“I wouldn’t be devastated if the Army told me I never had to go back to Afghanistan,” she said. “I think there is plenty to keep us busy here.”
Mallach works as a government contractor, paid by grants to evaluate state programs for veterans and their families. She is especially interested in strengthening liaisons between Jews in the military and the civilian Jewish community.
“When I speak to Jewish groups at a synagogue or a Hebrew school, people are often surprised to find out there are Jews in the military.
“I have definitely seen the Jewish community’s support for Jews in the military increase since I’ve been in the service,” she said.
Mallach is aware that many question a war that has now lasted most of a decade.
“I have no idea how long the war will last,” she told NJJN. “At times, for the 10 years we’ve been at war, it doesn’t seem like we’ve made much progress. But I saw only one teeny-tiny piece of the puzzle” that made up the war’s totality.
Even those who oppose the war, she said, remain supportive of the troops.
“They are absolutely very different things,” she said. “What Americans think about the war is totally inconsequential to me. As a soldier I have a job to do, and I’m going to do that job to the best of my ability regardless of whether people think politically it is a good or a bad thing.
“Sometimes it’s hard for people not in the military to understand it is not about some political mission,” Mallach said. “It’s about doing a good job for my guys. It’s about taking care of my soldiers.”