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Salami and Shiites

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Shlomo Shulman

Firsthand report from the only Jewish chaplain in Iraq

It was just hours before the start of the Sukkot holiday, as the Blackhawk helicopter cut across the Iraqi desert, on a mission to transport important cargo. No, these were not top-secret military supplies, nor ammunition for the battle against Iraqi insurgents. Actually, it was an emergency supply of lulavs and etrogs.

As the only Jewish chaplain stationed in Iraq, life is, well, interesting. Iraq was once the pinnacle of the Jewish world - dating back 2,500 years ago when Jews were exiled from Israel after the destruction of the first Holy Temple. The Talmud was written here, and prophets are buried here.

And now, I am leading services at the only synagogue in town. My "shul" is a prefabricated plywood building that serves as the chapel here at Camp Striker, adjacent to Baghdad International Airport, where I've been stationed since May.

My main responsibility is to ensure every soldier's free exercise of his religion, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. That means contacting Jewish soldiers and helping them with their needs - whether it be counseling, kosher food, or the question of whether it's permitted to wear regulation leather Army boots in light of the restriction against wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur.

If they're captured in Iraq or Afghanistan, what kind of treatment could they expect?

How many Jewish soldiers are stationed in Iraq? It's difficult to get an accurate count, because they often avoid designating their "faith group" in military databases, especially once they find out they'll be deployed to an Arab country. They may not want the word "Jewish" printed on their ID necklaces (dog tags). If they're captured in Iraq or Afghanistan, what kind of treatment could they expect?

Once a week or so, I'll ride in a Humvee up to Camp Victory, the massive military complex from which the generals run the war, using Saddam's lakefront Al-Faw Palace as their headquarters. Saddam's initials are everywhere, his egomaniacal way of making sure a conqueror would have to dismantle the whole building to erase his legacy. The place is quite ostentatious, with the second-largest chandelier in the world (after one that hangs in Buckingham Palace). Camp Victory also has an array of ornate stone and marble vacation cottages that had been reserved for Saddam's family and cronies. It's all arranged around an enormous man-made lake - the perfect location for my "congregants" and I to do the Tashlich service after Rosh Hashana.

The High Holidays were really great. On Rosh Hashana I served about 130 meals - using only a one-burner stove and without running water. We had apples dipped in honey, pomegranates, gefilte fish, and honey cakes that my wife sent from the U.S. About 40 people showed up on the first night. I had plastic flower centerpieces on the tables, and I managed to get kosher wine for kiddush, which was a big hit; since alcohol is strictly forbidden by the Army in Iraq, for many soldiers this was the first taste of alcohol they'd had in a long time.

Blackhawk Battalion

How did I get here in the first place? After spending a few years learning at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, I'd been working in Boston on a Jewish community development project, and was looking for something different. I came across the U.S. Army Chaplaincy website late one night and sent an email for more information. From that point on, the Army recruiter handled all the details, putting me in touch with other observant Jewish chaplains. I signed up for a three-year hitch.

In January, I left my wife and two little girls in Boston and signed in at the three-month-long chaplain school at Ft. Jackson, SC. There were about 80 students, some from denominations I'd never even heard of. We learned how to interview a soldier applying to be a conscientious objector, dialogue with foreign religious leaders, request federal funds for religious programming, and other tasks of the trade. We spent weeks role-playing counseling situations, slept out in the field for several nights at a time, and had long philosophical discussions about good and evil.

Six weeks after I graduated, I was on a plane to Iraq, joining the fabled Third Infantry Division's aviation brigade outside of Baghdad. My battalion consists of about 400 soldiers who maintain, fix and fly Blackhawk helicopters, the U.S. Army's version of the minivan. Our pilots pick up and deliver everything: mail, food, medical supplies, and of course assault teams of camouflaged soldiers on missions to take out suspected terrorists or search for weapons.

It's important to help Jews reconnect with their heritage, no matter where they're located.

At first my wife thought I was nuts. But she saw the excitement on my face and knew this is what I wanted to do. But more so, she realized the importance of helping Jews reconnect with their heritage, no matter where they're located.

I try to call home every day, but it's tough with the time difference. My joke is that Iraq is "eight hours ahead of the East Coast, but a thousand years behind." If I time my call right, I can catch my wife and kids in the car as they head to school in the morning. Then I try to call my wife again when she's by herself and have a longer conversation. We email all the time, and occasionally get to see each other on the webcam. I'll see them sitting in our home in Boston, and they're looking at an oasis of date palms behind me, while helicopters fly overhead. If someone's looking for a surreal moment, he'll find plenty here.

Jewish Networking

As the only Jewish chaplain in Iraq, I'm a bit of an oddity to say the least. Wherever I go, I see soldiers squinting at the patch on my uniform, just above my name tag on my right chest. It's an embroidered depiction of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, crowned by a small Star of David.

All types of Jews are in the military. Young enlisted guys barely out of their teens, women with master's degrees who fly helicopters, veterinarians (yes, the Army still has a Veterinary Corps), doctors, psychologists, lawyers, infantry foot soldiers, Arabic interpreters. We've got privates and colonels in Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine uniforms, plus civilians working here for the U.S. State Department or private contractors. Guys with last names like O'Laughlin, McCann and McCay, and others named Cohen, Sternberg and Kaufman.

There's the reporter for the Wall Street Journal. The farm girl from Montana who is now a sergeant and eats only kosher food. And there's the Jewish grandmother from New York who is in Iraq, incongruously, to help interrogate high-value terrorist suspects.

The other day, as I stepped into the transient housing tent known as "The Stables," a young civilian standing there spotted the Ten Commandments patch and introduced himself. He said he was originally from Tennessee, but now lives in the Philippines, where he's an active congregant in one of the two synagogues there. He'd just arrived in Iraq beginning his second tour as a private "security consultant," headed to Fallujah for the next year or so. We exchanged email addresses, and I promised to put him in touch with another Jewish contractor I'd met who's working in Fallujah - a retired Denver cop teaching police tactics to Iraqi law enforcement officers. Jewish networking is alive and well here, too.

Chow Hall

"Camp" is an accurate word for our Army base. It's pretty Spartan - really just a huge cluster of dusty tents, trailers and a few plywood constructions housing about 13,000 Americans. Permanent structures are few, because U.S. policy is to give the impression that we're not in Iraq for the duration - only long enough to help the Iraqis run their own country.

A big lizard scurried in front of me today. It was the first live creature, other than humans, that I've seen in five months here. This place is so hot that nothing seems to live here. I never imagined heat like this. It's like sticking yourself into an oven set to 125 degrees. Our "tents" are actually rows and rows of CHUs ("containerized housing units"), the Army's way of describing a converted metal shipping container big enough for two people.

In a bizarre way, you get used to it.

Have I become accustomed to life here? Well, spend enough time in 125-degree temperatures with choking sand and dust in every nook and cranny, listening to the unbelievably loud and terrifying booms of outgoing and incoming artillery rounds, as well as the round-the-clock deafening roar of helicopters flying through the sky; using port-a-johns a lady wouldn't set foot in; living in tents with a dozen other soldiers or converted metal shipping containers barely seven-feet wide; and in a bizarre way, you just get used to it.

There isn't much kosher food for me to eat in the chow hall, so I usually bring in a self-heating camping meal from a care package or a kosher MRE ("Meals, Ready to Eat") - long-life military rations. Our battalion food service officer dropped off 23 cases of them at my office not long ago, so I can never claim to go hungry.

I mainly go to the chow hall to grab a Dr Pepper and schmooze with my fellow soldiers. The chow hall is the unofficial hub of the camp, where people meet each other, seminars and promotion parties are held in the side rooms, and giant flat-panel TV sets line the walls broadcasting CNN, Fox News and other shows taped earlier in the US.

More than once, a soldier has spotted my yarmulke and introduced himself as a fellow Jew. So I try to eat there at least once a day, for good visibility if nothing else.

War Routine

I am frequently reminded of the danger and tragedy of war. I've been called to assist in counseling a squad that lost three guys in one day, as well as an entire helicopter crew who witnessed a mortally wounded soldier die in the back of their aircraft.

In a counseling capacity, I often deal with guys who have reached "The Point." The Point is usually reached nine or 10 months into a deployment, when a soldier has been in some hot, dusty, nasty, inhospitable corner of the world so long he's forgotten why he's there to begin with. He takes on what the Army would define as a really bad attitude, often gets into trouble, and then I, the chaplain, am called in to help him "chill out," to use the medical term.

Above all, a chaplain needs to be a good listener. That's why I posted a translated verse from the Book of Proverbs on my office door: "A worry in a person's heart - he should discuss it with others."

As I write this, I'm still thinking of the soldier I spoke with yesterday, the youngest of nine children, whose father unexpectedly passed away two months ago. At age 22, he didn't have a lot of life experience and was having difficulty coping with his personal tragedy.

If not for one detail, he'd have been dead.

About 45 minutes into the conversation, I realized that he was at the verge of suicide. I asked him about it, and he said that he'd returned to his bunk just two nights before with the intention of shooting himself in the head with his Army-issued rifle. It turns out he'd forgotten to bring his ammunition with him, but if not for that detail, he'd have been dead that night.

I had him leave his weapon in the office, and we walked together down to the camp clinic where fortunately I found a psychologist friend of mine on duty. The three of us had a long conversation, and the soldier was sent to an extended group therapy retreat up north at Camp Liberty.

And then there's the time I got called to testify for a soldier stationed at a small patrol base in Baghdad, who claimed that Judaism forbade him from washing pots in which pork products had been cooked. I had to inform his superiors that, regrettably, this claim was not true. (He may have confused us with Muslims.) We later discovered the guy wasn't even Jewish - he was just looking for a creative way to get out of work. Unfortunately for him, he picked the wrong religion to pretend to belong to.

And so goes the day.

Light Unto Nations

Shabbat is the best part of the week. That's when I host services and a meal, either here at Camp Striker or at some dusty outpost my assistant and I have been flown to, joining with guys who perhaps haven't heard Hebrew or worn a kippah in months or even years.

I try to get everything ready on Thursdays, because no matter what time Shabbat comes in each week, no matter where you are in the world, there just doesn't seem to be enough time to get everything done. It's like a rule of life. You could be unemployed with absolutely nothing to do all day in Alaska in the summertime, and I guarantee you will be rushing to get everything ready before you have to light candles at 11 p.m.

I've received lots and lots of care packages from synagogues, Hebrew schools and individual supporters in New York, California and everywhere else in between - even Israel. People send prayer books, food, and all the other necessities a Jew would require while living in a plywood-lined tent without a kitchen or running water and less-than-reliable electrical power.

The Torah prophesizes that we Jews will be exiled from our land and scattered to the four corners of the earth, where our job is to find ways to spiritually elevate our surroundings and be a "light unto the nations." That's why Jews seem to be everywhere on the planet, and a U.S. Army camp in Iraq is no exception.

So while the news is filled with battles of Sunni vs. Shiite, and insurgents vs. surge, my slice of military life has more to do with scrounging for kosher salami and trying to convince non-Jewish guys from the Arkansas National Guard to help build me a sukkah. So if you know anyone here who could use some "re-Jew-venation," drop me a line using the comment section below.

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