JCC Association’s JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, the only government accredited agency that serves the religious and social needs of Jewish military personnel, has received lots of mail during these past few months from chaplains and servicemen serving all over the world, and many from Iraq. War and distance seem to encourage introspection. We wanted to share these extraordinary messages—exhilarating, moving, and poignant–with you.
Originally featured in the summer 2003 issue of JCC Circle.
Living conditions are pretty harsh. Water and hot food are not common occurrences, but oddly enough, we have e-mail…sometimes. The weird thing is that, other than missing my family terribly, I am having a wonderful time. The work here is incredibly meaningful as a rabbi and as a chaplain. It is true that there are no atheists in foxholes. I have been traveling throughout the desert to different units to do services and, for the most part, attendance has been very good. There aren’t enough days in the week to hit all the units. This last Shabbat, I went with 7th Marines and had an awesome field service. 7th Marines are literally in the tip of the spear. We could see the lights of Iraq from our “synagogue.” Every prayer seems to have extra meaning out here, in particular prayers such Sim Shalom and Hashkiveinu.
My Shabbat started Friday morning with a service and lunch at Al Jabr Marine/Air Force Forward Air Base. We had two Jews, one the son of the owner of Jerusalem II Pizza in New York! Then back to Camp Commando for a quick turn around and to pick up our tactical gear, (helmet, flak jacket, pack, etc.) and up to Camp Coyote for the night. I love doing services up there. It is way up north, freezing, but VERY spiritual. It was a beautiful night, full of stars and a full moon. We had about a dozen kids. Afterwards, Chaplain Bill Devine, regimental chaplain for 7th Marines, and I stayed up late just talking. We spent the night up there and after an MRE breakfast; we headed to 5th Marines, even farther north, for a shaharit service. Only two people since most of the battalions were out on patrol. These kids are frightened, even though they won’t admit to it. When I asked them what they were thankful for this week (before Mizmor Shir), most of them said, “I’m just thankful to be still alive.” It cracked me up! As soon as that was over, we returned to Commando, dropped off the tactical gear, and off to Ali Al Salim Air Base. Again, only one Jew, but a very happy Jew. We sat and spoke for about two hours. Back to Commando, shower, changed and then an AMAZING Havdallah service with four marines. One of them started to cry (and me, too, almost) when I put my hands on their shoulders and prayed for them, “Be strong and of courage and trust in the Lord,” from the Book of Joshua. I have started to do this for everyone in the congregation; it has become the highlight of the service.
We are all waiting for the war to begin. Most people just want to do it, get it over with and come home. In the meantime, I feel like I am taking care of our people. I don’t smell very good right now, and would kill for some kosher food, but I know that this is where I need to be.
Hi, my name is CPT Jason Lefton. I am a member of the New York National Guard. I am serving in Bosnia. I am not the most religious person, but I am quite proud to be Jewish, and I am also proud to serve. I really appreciate the calendar and other support of the JCC Association. I have never met Chaplain Goldstein, but I have walked past his office many times on my way to my unit offices in Latham. As a leader in NYARNG, and a growing personality in the NY community I wanted to offer my support. Thank you for yours,
Captain, U.S. Army
I am currently assigned as the US Sixth Fleet Deputy Fleet Chaplain. We are homeported in Gaeta, Italy, and I am currently deployed in the Mediterranean on our ships in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I have been in the Navy for over 13 years. My feelings on war in general, including this war, are always bittersweet. War is never something to be viewed with joy. There is always death and destruction. Our tradition teaches that even during the Exodus, God shed tears over the Egyptians who died in the Red Sea. Even in this war, which to my mind is essential, we must always be cognizant of the death, suffering, and destruction that live in war’s wake. As I stood on the deck watching Tomahawk missiles leave en route to Iraq, there were tears in my eyes. Yes, this war was certainly necessary to stop a modern-day Haman, who was set on producing weapons of mass destruction to use or give to others to use against America, Israel, and other Western countries. He was a mass murderer who killed his own people. He was a supporter of terrorism. He and his cronies needed to be destroyed. At the same time, innocent people suffer and die–even though every effort is made to avoid those occurrences. I am often asked to bless bombs or missiles. My prayer is always, “May this device hit and impact upon its intended target–and ONLY upon its intended target.”
My role is often to bring a sense of reality to the crew regarding current world events. I have provided much training on the historical roots of conflict as they relate to the global war on terror and the just war concept as it applies to what we are doing.
I often get questions about Judaism. Whenever possible, I conduct sessions entitled “Ask the Rabbi” where people can learn about our faith. At times, I have young men and women who seek me out, saying they are married to a Jewish partner and are interested in Judaism. I vividly remember several years ago, a young man came up to me while I was aboard a small ship. He recognized me from my days on staff at Navy boot camp and told me that when he first came to services during those emotional days of recruit training, he had not been in a synagogue since his bar mitzvah, seven years before. He went on to tell me he still had the siddur I gave him–and he reads from it every night. Believe me, that makes it all worthwhile. That is the real impact we have on young Jews searching for meaning in a troubled world and searching for meaning in their faith.
Rabbi Moe Kaprow
Baghdad, Liberated Iraq
For the first 42 years of my life I have been celebrating Passover as a Jew who had been liberated from Egypt, but this year I had the privilege of observing this festival not only as one who had been liberated but as a liberator. This year I spent this Festival of Freedom with the men and women of the First Marine Expeditionary Force in Baghdad.
My Passover journey began the Monday before Pesach. Four days prior, I had returned from Iraq to Camp Commando Kuwait, long enough to take a shower, eat some hot food, and most important, pick up supplies for Passover before returning to Iraq. Through the generosity of the Jewish Chaplains Council, family and friends, and countless other Jewish organizations, I found myself transporting 12 boxes of matzah, grape juice, gefilte fish, and the famous solo-Seder kits. The mission was clear; to celebrate as many Passover Sederim as possible with the marines, and to deliver matzah and Seder kits to those marines who would not be able to attend a Seder. To understand the scope of this mission, you have to realize that the sailors, marines, soldiers, and airman in Iraq are literally scattered throughout the country, some in areas that are hours away by vehicle through sectors not 100 percent secured. The logistics of getting myself, my RP (chaplain’s assistant) and the supplies up to Baghdad were quite mind-boggling. The G-4 (Logistics) and G-3 (Operations) of the MEF had been instrumental, lining up C-130 transports, helos, and HUMVEEs to get to our destination. The 1st Marine Division chaplain and the various regimental chaplains also would play a key role in getting us to where we needed to be, and getting the supplies to locations not on our schedule so that marines could do their own Sederim.
The first step of our amazing journey began late Monday afternoon. We took a HUMVEE to an expeditionary airfield north of Kuwait City. From this field, a piece of desert where our C-130s can land, we took a “Herc” C-130 cargo plane to another field, actually a road turn airfield on the outskirts of Baghdad. Since we did not arrive until 2:00 a.m., we pulled out our sleeping bags and spent what was left of the night on the side of the road. At 6:00 a.m. the next morning, we were promptly awakened by the noise of two CH-46 helos coming to get us and take us to Baghdad.
After a short ride, we found ourselves in the field by a huge, bombed-out compound. We were met by the 1st MarDiv Division chaplain who welcomed us to the former Special Republican Guard Headquarters, now home of the 1st Marine Division in Baghdad. The division chaplain told us of the busy schedule he had set up for us, doing what turned out to be a total of four Sederim, two on each of the first nights of Pesach.
Regimental chaplains from around the division brought their marines and sailors to the different Sederim. Each was held in a different location around Baghdad. One was held in the lobby of one of the buildings in the compound, the headquarters of the Iraqi Secret Police. The other in the Republican Guards Headquarters, while the other two were held in the Iraqi Military Academy and in the official residence of the Ministry of Information, the infamous “Baghdad Bob,”
This last Seder was particularly meaningful to me. Held in the area held by 7th Marines, it was the largest Seder I lead. As we pulled into their compound, one of the Jewish marines reminded me, “Hey Rabbi, you promised us you would be with us in Baghdad for Pesach, and here you are!” Indeed, G-d had made it possible to keep my promise. There were several challenges to meet in setting up the Seder. First, the residence had no water or power. Promptly, the regimental chaplain, Father Bill Devine, pulled out a box of sacramental candles. “Use these,” he said, with a smile! Our Seder table looked like a combination of Pesach and Hanukkah, all wrapped up into one. The second challenge involved security. The windows were covered, in fear of snipers. And finally, the Shulchan Orech, the main Passover meal. Since all we had to eat was MREs, we pulled whatever kosher goodies I could find from care packages from home. In addition to wine, grape juice, matzah, and marror, our meal consisted of a few cans of gefilte fish, some Pesach candy, and a can of pickled vegetables someone had sent me from Israel.
The wonderful thing was that we didn’t care. We were all together, we were all healthy, and we were celebrating the Feast of Freedom, surrounded by a people who were just beginning to taste the sweetness of being no longer oppressed. Our Seder progressed amidst the darkness and the sound of machine gun and sniper rifle fire. It was truly an amazing couple of nights. I went to sleep that second night, looking at stars and affirming the words of Jacob in the Torah, “Surely, God was in the place, and I did not know it!”
Our return to Kuwait and Camp Commando was also quite providential. I was not looking forward to a long return trip via helo, C-130, and HUMVEE. But as luck would have it, we stumbled upon a helo returning directly to Kuwait. We did not mind the five hour flight back and the three fuel stops. As we flew over the Iraqi countryside at 50 feet, I reflected on what our marines, sailors, soldiers, and airmen had accomplished. We had been partners with the Almighty in doing for the Iraqi people what He had done for us in Egypt. This, indeed, was a season of freedom and redemption.
This morning started with a cold rain. This was a blessing, as it padded the loose sand and made for a clear, crisp day. The wonderful duo of Chaplain Yacovac, 3rd Infantry Division, and Chaplain Waynick, 24th Support Command, gathered me and two other Jewish soldiers, the necessary six security personnel, and four vehicles, to convoy us 40 minutes from our classified base at Logistics Support Area Dogwood to Objective Grady for a Passover Seder in the desert.
When we arrived, ten other Jewish soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and Chaplain (Rabbi) Carlos Huerta warmly greeted us. Together, a motley group of infantrymen, pilots, medics, and truck drivers formed a minyan, and then a family. Our table was meager but festive. Dispel all rumors of Army soldiers having Seders in palaces. That was not us. Our tent was small and nondescript from the outside. We used mess-hall-provided paper plates, flatware, and cups. There was no meat or main course. The simple Passover supplies of matzah, gefilte fish, and grape juice from the Jewish Welfare Board, combined with generous packages of cookies, dried fruit, and candy mailed by Lynne from Arizona and my cousin Stephen Hirsch of Long Island, New York constituted our meal. We even used Army issued Louisiana hot sauce for the bitter herbs.
Rabbi Huerta motivated us all to a higher plane. Despite our harsh living conditions–sleeping outside on the ground, without showers or toilets–there are always people who have it harsher. We were slaves once. The Iraqi people were oppressed for over a generation by Saddam Hussein. And now we are both free. The ten plagues the Lord cast upon Pharaoh we’ve cast upon Saddam Hussein with embargoes, restrictions, war, and perhaps death. Now, like the Jews who crossed the Red Sea, the Iraqi people must rebuild their lives and teach their children about freedom.
During the meal, soldiers talked about missing family and friends back in Pasadena, California, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Phoenix, Arizona, Brooklyn, New York, Orlando, Florida, and other hometowns across the USA. Each participant was glad to get a few moments away from his military post and remember previous Seders with wives, children, parents, and friends. First LT Abraham Falkowitz remarked, “I was surprised to see this much Judaism in the middle of a war zone.” Others agreed. We laughed, cried, and had fun. The service concluded with songs and Psalms. Rabbi Huerta read from Psalm 118, “The Lord is on [sic] my side, I have no fear.”
Together, our unit made that tent a house, and that house a home. A piece of Judaism, a piece of America.
MAJ Jonas Vogelhut
Objective Grady, Central Iraq
Somewhere in Baghdad
I cannot thank you enough for the Passover food you sent. Without it, there would have been no Seder, no matzah, no nothing. The Army supply promises everything, but delivers nothing. Because of you I was able to observe Passover. May Hashem bless a thousand fold the work you do.
Will be leaving tomorrow to go to Mosul. The division will be securing the north to get rid of Saddam’s people and to keep out the Turks. G-d willing we’ll be there for Rosh Hashanah!
Chaplain Carlos Huerta, Major, U.S. Army