WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Washington mourned the loss of Adm. Jeremy M. "Mike" Boorda, many expressed surprise that the Navy's top officer was born Jewish.
Boorda, 56, died May 16 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound amid allegations that he improperly wore two citations for combat on medals he received for his service during the Vietnam War.
Although Boorda was not a practicing Jew and in fact raised his children as Protestants, he was born to two Jewish parents and had a bar mitzvah.
"He did not in any way emphasize his Jewish roots or his Jewishness," said Rabbi Aaron Landes, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral.
Landes, who knew Boorda, is the spiritual leader of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia.
But elsewhere, from the White House to Jewish organizations to the Pentagon, virtually no one knew that Boorda, who became the first enlisted man to rise to the Navy's highest post of chief of naval operations, was born a Jew.
"Certainly he did not identify actively in the Jewish community in the Navy," said Landes, who for 34 years has served as a member of the Chaplain Corps.
The Navy officially lists Boorda's religion as Jewish, which made him in fact the highest-ranking Jew in the Navy.
His memorial service was held Tuesday at the Washington National Cathedral.
Boorda and his wife, Bettie, who is not Jewish, raised their four children as Protestants, Landes said.
Among Boorda's ancestors were a cantor and a Chasidic family, Landes said.
Landes last saw Boorda last year when he traveled to Philadelphia to address the local Navy League.
After Boorda's death, Landes visited with the dead officer's sister in Philadelphia.
"Whatever his religious identity, it is secondary to his really being an outstanding officer in the United States Navy," Landes said.
Jewish War Veterans officials, who were surprised to learn of Boorda's Jewish roots, praised him as a "true American hero" who "defended this nation with honor and loyalty."