November 16, 2018

Rich Garcia: Stepping forward for Marines and Judaism

When U.S. Marine Sgt. Rich Garcia was on a mission in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, an improvised explosive device destroyed the vehicle he would have been on had he not moved to another to take over for a Marine who was ill.

He credits a siddur, of all things, with keeping him safe.

“That was the first time I carried a siddur out on patrol,” Garcia told the Journal. “After that, I carried that siddur everywhere.”

Garcia, 33, was a Marine from 2002 to 2011, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was raised by a Jewish father, who also was a Marine, and a Catholic mother. They separated when he was young and he lived with his father.

As a Marine, Garcia went to Shabbat services at boot camp and wore a Star of David necklace under his combat gear. He began converting to Judaism in 2014 through the program Judaism by Choice. Today, his connection to Judaism is not just spiritual but professional as the head of security at Sinai Temple.

“I think since he has chosen Judaism, he has made a connection with our families, and it’s more than just a job,” Sinai Temple Rabbi Erez Sherman said. “It is a sense of duty.”

Born in Corsicana, Texas, Garcia grew up outside of San Diego, raised mostly by his father, Richard Levine. Garcia said his father encouraged him to go to synagogue on Shabbat at a Conservative congregation.

“He pretty much said, ‘Hey, you can pick whatever religion you want … but let’s go to synagogue,’ ” Garcia said at Sinai, a handgun holstered at his side.

On Sept. 11, 2001, his father woke him up to watch on television as the second plane flew into the World Trade Center. A high school senior, he skipped school that day and visited a military recruiter.

“I grew up in a very patriotic household,” he said. “Honestly, I probably knew what terrorism was when other high school kids were not even thinking about it.”

During boot camp in San Diego, he participated in Shabbat services. It was then that a rabbi on base gave him the siddur he would carry with him throughout his service.

After his discharge, Garcia moved to Los Angeles, drawn to its large Jewish community and the job opportunities in private security. He began working at Sinai Temple last year, around the time that he completed his conversion coursework, led by Rabbi Neil Weinberg.

“He is a single man who wanted to become Jewish because he loves the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. He did all the requirements in our program — keeping Shabbat every week, going to synagogue weekly and keeping kosher,” Weinberg said in an email. “I am very proud that he converted to Judaism through our Judaism by Choice program.”

At Sinai, Garcia runs a team of former military men. He said providing employment to military veterans is a way of helping them after their service. “Give them a role, make them feel like they’re needed, because in the military we were needed, we had a role,” he said.

Garcia, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, is an employee of Centurion Group, a full-service security company that serves houses of worship, among other clients. A member of Sinai Temple, he holds a degree in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix and he plans to earn an Emergency Medical Technician certification.

His Sinai team attends the annual High Holy Days security briefing organized by the Anti-Defamation League. He works closely with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles in keeping abreast of security threats.

As a Marine, Garcia went to Shabbat services at boot camp and wore a Star of David necklace under his combat gear.

Gone are the days of discovering improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. These days, he is more likely to order an evacuation after a suspicious package is spotted at a bar mitzvah. Recently, a spate of threats targeting Jewish community centers put his team on higher alert. 

“It kept my guys on their toes — we took it personally,” he said. “This is our home, and we’re not going to let anybody destroy our community.”

In March, he traveled to Israel for the first time and participated in the Jerusalem Marathon as part of a delegation that included Sherman as well as other Sinai congregants . He ran in memory of Marcus Preudhomme, a fellow Marine who was killed in action in Iraq in 2008. Preudhomme’s name is inscribed on a bracelet on Garcia’s wrist.

During the trip, Garcia became a bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. Sherman was by his side as he recited an aliyah — Parashat Vayakhel.

Though he spends his free hours at the gym, he ran the half-marathon instead of the full.

“I ran the half, I’m not going to lie to you. Oh, my gosh, that was hard,” he said. “It was hills. I’m in the Jewish community. I wish they would’ve told me Jerusalem is all hills — they knew I was going. But it was great.”