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Some Holiday: Iraq Troops Lack Rabbis, Safe Passage to Services

Specialist Dan Freedman woke up at 0300 hours — 3 a.m. —September 15. It was dark and he was tired, but he was determined to get from his base at Camp Victory to Saddam Hussein’s former Republican Palace in the capital. He put on his uniform, grabbed his M-16 and went looking for his two Jewish comrades-in-arms to join him on an urgent mission: to get to the palace — safely — before Rosh Hashanah services began that evening at 1800 hours. He had 15 hours to complete the mission.

The 10-mile stretch of highway connecting Camp Victory with Baghdad is a perilous one. Iraqi insurgents have made it a popular strip for launching attacks on passing American military vehicles. Last April, insurgents distributed fliers in the area, calling on locals not to use the road. “Anyone traveling on the highway is a target,” the flier said. Many a soldier has been killed on the road, which has been dubbed “RPG alley,” a reference to the rocket-propelled grenades the insurgents use as their weapon of choice.

Freedman, an infantryman serving in a long-range surveillance unit, arranged a special multiple-vehicle convoy to get to the palace. Numerous other soldiers were involved in securing the mission. The U.S. Military Academy pledges to transfer any American soldiers to the site where religious services are being held on condition that the trip can be made safely. In Iraq, however, “safe” is a relative word. For Freedman and his two Jewish comrades-in-arms, the trip was safe enough.

Many of the more or less 600 Jewish soldiers in Iraq are forced to make dangerous trips to participate in the Jewish holidays. When they get there, they often find the proper food and supplies lacking. The problem, says the head American military chaplain in Iraq, Colonel Gene Fowler, is that there are not enough rabbis to go around.

“We still don’t have enough rabbis in theater,” said Chaplain Chip, as he asks to be called. “We need five or six to do a good job.”

The lack of military rabbis is not limited to Iraq. “The problem is that we don’t have enough in the Army, Navy or Marines – in the whole world,” Chaplain Chip said.

Jewish soldiers are stationed all around Iraq, but there is only one rabbi stationed in the country: Rabbi Shmuel Felzenberg, based in Camp Anaconda near the city of Balad, some 40 miles north of Baghdad. He led Rosh Hashanah services in Balad, drawing about 1,000 people.

The military flew in two more rabbis just for the High Holy Days and stationed each one in far-flung parts of the country, where they hopped between the main bases. A Navy rabbi flew in and led services in Falluja and Ramadi, in western Iraq, for Jewish Marines. Rabbi Hanoch Fields, an Army Reserve chaplain out of Colorado who brought with him Army-bought prayer books, was flown north to Mosul. (Once known as Nineveh, Mosul is the city of the biblical prophet Jonah.) Afterward, Fields was sent to Kirkuk.

But in Baghdad, neither the sprawling Green Zone, home to the largest U.S. Embassy in the world, nor nearby Camp Victory, one of the largest American military bases in Iraq, has a rabbi. If it weren’t for Paul Tyson, all the Jews in, around and south of Baghdad would have been without services. Tyson, an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Justice, volunteered as a military-authorized lay prayer leader.

Often when a number of Jews are located in a place without a military rabbi, they choose a layman to conduct the services rather than use the services of a non-Jewish chaplain who gives a “generic” prayer service. “It’s part of our job that soldiers have the opportunity to worship according to their tradition,” Chaplain Chip said.

On September 13, Administrative Notice No. 09-A005 was sent out by e-mail to everyone in the area. It read: “Jewish High Holiday Services at the palace, 15-16 September 2004.”

Like Freedman, many soldiers had to make their own travel arrangements to the palace chapel, where the services were held. One Jewish military officer stationed in Camp Babylon hitched a helicopter ride to the Green Zone with some Polish officers. He is based in what was once the ancient city of Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar dragged thousands of Jews after conquering the kingdom of Judah 2,600 years ago. Today it is mostly populated by Shi’ite Iraqis and a large contingent of Polish forces, leaving scant chance of a minyan.

For the some 15 soldiers and 10 civilians who showed up at the palace, it was worth the trip. The large high-ceilinged, marble-floored room in the north wing of the gold-domed Republican Palace provided a quiet sanctuary for Jewish prayers.

Plastic chairs were set in rows facing a podium where Tyson gave a short service in Hebrew and English. Besides the chairs and the room, which serves all religious faiths, little else was provided by the military.

“The Catholics all have rosaries but the Jews didn’t have anything,” Tyson said.

His sister, who runs the gift shop at Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly, N.J., “gave her suppliers a guilt trip” so that they would lower the price of prayer books. The synagogue bought them and sent them to Tyson, who brought them from his trailer home to the palace in a laundry bag on his bicycle. “There was no other way,” he said.

Tyson stored them behind the “Jewish” door of a cupboard whose doors are labeled Protestant, Lutheran, Catholic, LDS (for Latter Day Saints) and Jewish.

“Jacky,” one of the American contractors working in the Green Zone, built a pushke — a box for donations — into which everyone stuffed American dollar bills. He later constructed a sukkah near the palace pool, for use during the holiday of Sukkot two weeks after Rosh Hashanah. “I considered building the sukkah under Saddam’s Victory Arch,” he said with a chuckle.

When the Rosh Hashanah service was over, everyone lingered. They took photos sitting on Saddam’s ornately carved furniture until someone suggested they all get a table together in the dining room. Some 15 Jewish soldiers and civilians made their way down the marbled halls to the food line.

Chaplain Chip said that the military provides kosher food. “We bring in kosher food and distribute it to where the services are located,” he said. But the palace dining room had no chicken soup, no fish heads, no apples and honey.

The Jews were not deterred. Under a crystal chandelier next to a curving marbled stairway, they sat at plastic tables pushed together, eating roast beef or shrimp casserole off disposable plates. One civilian brought a bottle of red wine and a young American civilian adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior recited the blessing. A couple of the younger soldiers poured the forbidden drink into their paper cups when the older Jewish officers were not looking.

For the group of Jewish soldiers, diplomats and contractors, it did not matter if they had a real rabbi, if there were enough prayer books or kosher food, or if it took hours to arrange a convoy to get there. Just being there together sufficed.

“It was meaningful,” Larry Cheshal, a telecommunications contractor, wrote later in an e-mail, “because I was here in the land of Mesopotamia celebrating my Jewishness in a war zone with soldiers and diplomats trying to free a land from the tyranny of terrorism.”

“No matter what your personal politics are at an individual level,” he wrote, “it gives me hope that people will risk their lives — [some] for money, yes, but also for what’s ‘right.’”

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