Welcoming the Sabbath, Pistols And Machine Guns at the Ready
They are a minyan, just barely. Half of them come to pray with guns.
The rabbi, Mitchell Schranz, would rather his congregants leave their Berettas and their M-4 rifles at home than bring them to this nondescript alcove, not far from a former palace of Saddam Hussein. But this is Camp Victory, the American military’s main headquarters in Iraq — and Jewish soldiers don’t always have the option of welcoming Shabbat unarmed.
“We’re in a wartime, combat situation,” U.S. Navy Commander Schranz said in a recent interview. “You’ve got to be flexible.”
Jews account for only a tiny sliver of the 15,000 or so military personnel and civilian contractors stationed at this sprawling complex on the edge of the Baghdad airport. For them, life can be a series of balancing acts: between military duties and religious ones; between disclosure and discretion; between the bonds of shared combat and the bonds of common culture, and faith. At Camp Victory, honoring Jewish traditions means becoming a scrappy improviser. The spirit often trumps the letter of rabbinic law.
But that spirit often grows in direct proportion to the harshness of the surroundings.
“Soldiers’ prayers tend to be straight from the heart. There’s an earnestness in their relations with the Almighty,” Schranz said as the thud of artillery shook the room, “because their day-to-day existence can be so tenuous.”
An avuncular, red-cheeked 51-year-old native of the Bronx, Schranz tacked to the wall a blue flag with 10 numbers, marking theroom’s transition to temporary synagogue. Though trained as an Orthodox rabbi at Yeshiva University, Schranz displays a degree of flexibility generally associated with clergy from liberal denominations. The foot-tall Torah that serves as the centerpiece of Schranz’s Friday night service is made of paper, not the religiously required parchment. But it’s an improvement over what they had a few weeks ago: no Torah at all. In the next few months, Jeremy Schlieve, private first class and a Humvee mechanic, and Hannah Bartley, a classified computer network technician, hope to build an ark for the scroll. They want it done by October, in time for their joint bar and bat mitzvah.
Schranz, wearing a white prayer shawl and yarmulke over his gray-and-tan camouflage uniform, led the collection of soldiers and airmen through the traditional Friday night prayers. He used minor key melodies that would be instantly recognizable in many American synagogues. But it’s hard to imagine the dialogue between Schranz and his congregation taking place back home. In the middle of the service, he asked the soldiers what they were thankful for this week. Doing a good job fixing a Humvee, Schlieve answered. An upcoming visit to the States, another soldier said. The return of his “New York homeboy” to base, a third shouted out. Some called Schranz “rabbeinu” (“our rabbi”). Others, “sir.” Everyone stood for the Mourner’s Kaddish, to remember lost comrades. Kiddush cups were poured extra generously; the two bottles of red, sweet Kedem are some of the only alcohol that’s allowed on base.
For many of the troops here, this is the only break they get all week — the single sign that one week is over and another is set to begin. “It’s an enormous morale booster for me,” said Capt. Marc Levsky, an Army captain and doctor who was leading services here until Schranz arrived in June. “When I was stationed in Fallujah, one of my biggest problems was that there were no services there.”
Jews at Camp Victory share a bond, he explained — one that rivals the ties between soldiers that work together day to day. “My unit is something I’m placed in,” Levsky adds. “At services, I’ve got things in common with everyone in the room — what we eat, how we grew up.”
Often, soldiers like Schlieve and Levsky aren’t just the only Jews in their units — they’re the only Jews their fellow soldiers have ever met. The two wind up spending a fair amount of time educating other troops about the basics of their faith, like why Jews might be a bit reluctant to celebrate Christmas. Neither has seen any antisemitism in the ranks. Most soldiers, they say, are eager to learn — especially the evangelical Christians and the observant Catholics, who understand the value of taking a weekly break from the war.
The locals are a different story. Some Iraqis have a deep-seeded disdain for Jews among Iraqis, and revealing one’s roots can be as dangerous as a nighttime raid. “I encountered an Imam [who] was very upset that Hitler failed. He told me this over dinner at his house, while I sat on his couch,” said Daniel Green, an Army surgeon working in Baghdad’s Green Zone, in an e-mail. “He was oblivious to my faith, and had even sent a pair of gold earrings to my wife. He would probably burn his sofa and dinnerware if he found out.”
Almost every act involving Judaism or Jewishness has to be weighed against wartime realities, Levsky notes. Staying strictly kosher in the mess hall would probably mean not eating at all. Days of rest often become days of toil. “With holidays, I can’t always take off the day I want. Sometimes there’s literally nobody else to do my job,” Levsky said.
At the end of the Friday service, a few of the soldiers asked Schranz about the upcoming fast of the 17th of Tammuz. Should they stay away from eating? From drinking?
No way, he answered. Baghdad in August is way too hot — with highs nearing 140 degrees — to work without water or on an empty stomach. “I encourage them to practice their faith in full,” he told me a few days later. “But of course, in the military, one faces more immediate life-and-death situations. Protecting life, preserving life, that takes precedence above all.”
For the rabbi, preserving a sense of Jewish community among his flock is also a top priority.
The troops’ backgrounds can be startling different. Levsky’s father also led Jewish services during his stint in the military, while Schlieve’s mother eventually became a Baptist. The rabbi — a 28-year Navy veteran who’s recently been stationed in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Okinawa, and Naples, Italy — tries to craft a nonsectarian service that appeals to all of them. Every seat in the makeshift sanctuary gets a booklet of transliterated prayers. Sermons are kept straightforward and relevant to military life.
Schranz volunteered for duty in Iraq, leaving his family behind in Naples for a year. He felt compelled to come, with so few Jews serving these days as military chaplains. The Defense Department’s spiritual advisers are trained to help people of all faiths get access to the religious services of their choice — finding lay leaders on base, getting a hold of wine or wafers or whatever else is necessary to conduct a ritual. “But there’s still a big difference when a Jewish soldier sees a chaplain with these tablets and a Star of David on his collar,” Schranz said.
Schranz’s duties don’t begin and end on Friday night. As the Sabbath came to a close on Saturday night, a handful of troops gathered at the rabbi’s office for a half-hour nugget of American Jewish culture: “Seinfeld.” Schranz had Schlieve cue up one of his “Top 5” episodes — “The Limo,” in which George is mistaken for a latter-day Nazi.
But before the beginning of the show, Schranz wanted to offer up a quick Havdalah prayer to mark the end of the Sabbath. All the wine was now locked up. There were no candles to be found. So Schranz took an olive-green flashlight from the desk. He took a fruit punch-flavored Gatorade out of the refrigerator. And then, he began to chant. When the prayer was over, he grinned.
“Sometimes,” the rabbi said, “you make do with what you have.”