Celebrating High Holy Days in Afghanistan

Jewish Chaplains Offer Messages of Faith at 'B'nai Kabul'

Faithful, Far Away: Jewish Army chaplains bring message of faith and hope to soldiers who are often cut off from their religion. Kiddush is celebrated with grape juice out of consideration for the country’s Muslim culture.
Faithful, Far Away: Jewish Army chaplains bring message of faith and hope to soldiers who are often cut off from their religion. Kiddush is celebrated with grape juice out of consideration for the country’s Muslim culture.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published September 29, 2011, issue of October 07, 2011.
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Rabbi Jacob Goldstein will lead Yom Kippur services this year dressed not in the black fedora of his Lubavitch Hasidic sect, but in full battle gear at a Combat Operating Base in eastern Afghanistan.

And Rabbi Laurence Bazer won’t be delivering the sermon at Temple Beth Sholom, his Conservative synagogue in Framingham, Mass. Instead, he’ll be ministering to the cheekily named Congregation B’nai Kabul in the heart of the Afghan capital.

The two Army chaplains make up half the crew of four military rabbis who will be helping Jews serving in Afghanistan to observe the High Holy Days, which began with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 28.

Rabbi Laurence Bazer
Rabbi Laurence Bazer

Nearly 100,000 American troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan. The number of Jewish service members is unknown, though at least 37 Jews have died there and in Iraq since 2001.

Interviewed on September 27, Bazer and Goldstein said they expect about 30 participants each at the Rosh Hashanah services they will hold, Bazer in Kabul and Goldstein at a base near Pakistan. Meanwhile, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and Army chaplain named Avi Weiss will hold High Holy Day services in northern Afghanistan, and a Conservative rabbi and Navy chaplain named Josh Sherwin will hold services in southern Afghanistan.

Services in a combat zone aren’t quite the same as those back in the United States. For one thing, Bazer said, they’re shorter than his High Holy Day services in Framingham, though for security reasons he wouldn’t say by how much.

The rabbis come from different denominations, and their military services bear their own imprint. Goldstein’s services will feature a mechitzah, a divider separating men from women, and will follow a prayer book used by the Lubavitch community. Only men will be called to the Torah. Goldstein said that these practices had caused “no issues” in the past. Bazer, meanwhile, will use a Conservative prayer book and will have no mechitzah.

Bazer, 48, is gray haired and ruddy faced, and looks at home in Army fatigues. He is the only Jewish military chaplain currently stationed on a full-length rotation in Afghanistan; the other three will return home after the holidays. A lieutenant colonel, Bazer now serves as Kabul Base Cluster Command chaplain, a sort of commanding rabbi for the bases around the capital. He supervises all chaplains in the region, regardless of their religious background.

A 22-year military veteran on his first deployment, Bazer came to Afghanistan in August to join the 26th “Yankee” Brigade, a Massachusetts Army National Guard unit. He expects to be in the country for another five months.

“At this point I’m specifically taking care of the Jewish community,” Bazer said of his work during the High Holy Days. That marks a departure for the rabbi. “My real role,” he said, “is to take care of all service members and contractors and the government officials that fall under our command. That’s something I’m very proud of, and that’s why I’m called chaplain.”

Bazer won’t chastise his congregants during his sermons this year. “My goal for the holidays is to make them feel a connection to who they are as Jews,” he said. His sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah was to address how to make each day count in Afghanistan; his sermon on the second day was set to look at the purpose of prayer.

“The messages I would want to impart to my very special community here are messages of hope and resiliency in a place like Afghanistan,” Bazer said.

During the intermediate days of Sukkot, Bazer plans to travel to the bases in the Kabul area with a lulav, a palm branch, and etrog, the oblong yellow citrus fruit. He’s hoping to bring a portable sukkah, as well, though the one he ordered has yet to arrive.

Goldstein, too, will be doing some traveling. After Rosh Hashanah, the Lubavitch rabbi was planning to go with his bodyguard and assistant, an African-American soldier from Louisiana, to Combat Operating Bases and Forward Operating Bases in the midst of Afghanistan’s combat zones.

“I will be conducting the services in full body armor, full battle gear, which means helmet and full body protection,” Goldstein said. “That’s the way you live in a COB or an FOB. That’s not Crown Heights, right?”

Even in the relative safety of the larger bases, Goldstein said, he wears his army uniform rather than the typical Lubavitch hat and coat. A friend of his wife knit him a camouflage-patterned gartel, the belt Hasidic Jews wear while praying, which he brought along.

Goldstein, a colonel, has been an Army chaplain since 1976. His first deployment was to Granada in 1983. Just like the Lubavitchers who FILL the streets of New York, Goldstein offers to help the men stationed at the Forward Operating Bases he visits to put on tefillin, and offers Sabbath candles to the women.

Meanwhile, in Kabul on Yom Kippur, soldiers will break the fast with fare that would appeal to the heart and stomach of any Ashkenazi.

“We ordered bagels, and someone is getting in an oil-cured smoked salmon,” Bazer said. “How can you have bagels without lox and cream cheese?”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis

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