Upon touching down in Texas and boarding the bus that would take her to Air Force basic training in 1977, Selina Kanowitz was struck by the seriousness of her soon-to-be companions-in-arms: “I stepped up on the bus and said, ‘How come everyone’s so sad? Doesn’t anybody smile on this?’”
Kanowitz, 70, grew up never expecting to join the military, let alone become a master sergeant, but her initial fish-out-of-water mentality helped her bring levity to the job and lead with creative solutions in mind.
After leaving the Air Force in 1998, Kanowitz joined Jewish War Veterans Post 215 in Philadelphia, then Post 126 in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where she was post commander of the year on the state and national level. She was appointed vice junior commander, senior vice commander and, last month, department commander for the Jewish War Veterans, Department of New Jersey Department. She is the first woman to serve in the role.
“It’s a big honor, it’s a huge responsibility and it’s a challenge,” Kanowitz said.
Climbing the military ranks when few other women did, the Cherry Hill resident and Chabad of Cherry Hill member hopes to bring more women, as well as families and young people, into the JWV. Kanowitz also will help fellow Jewish veterans connect with resources to help with benefits or provide funeral services and oversee the JWV posts across the state.
All the while, she is balancing a full-time job as the senior staff nuclear medicine technologist at Temple
Kanowitz achieved her veteran status after she was activated, or deployed, in 1991 to be a noncommissioned officer in charge of radiology for Operation Desert Storm. Most of her unit went to Oman, but Kanowitz, a higher-ranking officer, did not go overseas and
provided assistance at home.
The veteran’s passion for medicine was the reason she originally joined the military. Raised in an Orthodox home in Philadelphia, Kanowitz wanted to become a pediatrician. She enjoyed working with children as a teacher before joining the Air Force.
To receive financial assistance to attend medical school, Kanowitz joined the military but was told she had to apply to civilian schools on her own dime — something her family couldn’t afford. The Air Force trained her in radiology, but a “bored” Kanowitz later enrolled in Washington Memorial School of Nuclear Medicine, now the Jefferson Washington Township Hospital. She graduated in 1979, two years after enlisting.
Kanowitz was the only Jewish person at basic training at the Texas military base, and women were first being accepted in 1977. Later in her service, colleagues called Kanowitz “Private Benjamin,” referring to the 1980 Goldie Hawn film about a Jewish woman joining the Women’s Army Corps after her husband died.
Her differences were a point of
pride for Kanowitz.
Kanowitz kept kosher as best she could and frequently met with the Jewish military chaplain and rabbi who visited the base’s chapel for Shabbat. Later in her training, friends would join her for the makeshift services.
“I really didn’t feel alienated,” Kanowitz said. “I felt special, actually.”
Still, Kanowitz believes she did experience some added difficulties as a minority in the Air Force. She had a commander who held her back twice from going before the review board to be a commissioned officer. Her college degree should have granted Kanowitz the ability to become a lieutenant, major or captain, she believed. She attributed the instance to antisemitism because her commanding officer was not Jewish.
“It was subtle, but it was there,” Kanowitz said.
But most of the time, Kanowitz was focused on her job. Appointed dorm chief during basic training, Kanowitz was put in charge of dozens of other women at the base. One day, a drill instructor approached her and told her to hold a GI party. Kanowitz thought this was an actual party until two women approached her and told her the term referred to a thorough cleaning of the dorm.
“So we got a sheet, and they gave us a watered-down bucket of wax, and we turned on a radio in the giant room, and we danced on the sheet,” Kanowitz said. “We shined these floors like you could see forever. We did a great job, and we had fun doing it.”
It was Kanowitz’s same knack for building community that brought her to the JWV, a place where, after decades of being a minority, Kanowitz found camaraderie in so many people like her. Joining the organization, she learned “leadership,” “camaraderie” and the confidence to speak in front of groups.
“It’s like a second family,” Kanowitz said.