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For Jewish Soldiers, Base Is Lonely Place

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Since getting the call to leave Long Island and fly to an army base somewhere in the Midwestern corn belt, where she’s in final combat training exercises before heading to Iraq, Specialist Joanna Cohen has had plenty of time to meet the other Jewish soldiers stationed with her — all three of them.

“I feel a bit isolated sometimes,” the 21-year old Cohen said slowly, when asked what it’s like to be a Jewish soldier in the Army. “Every morning we have spiritual fitness. The one person in the unit who is religious will open the Bible and talk about a passage. Well, it’s always the New Testament. It’s usually Jesus.

“I try to bring it to a more general God thing,” she added, “but they don’t tend to recognize that there are other faiths out there. We have a Buddhist kid with us, and he feels the same way.”

Although there are no official figures on Jewish soldiers, there are currently between 24 and 28 rabbis on active duty as chaplains in the armed forces. Many soldiers do not have access to a rabbi, according to a chaplain now serving in the Gulf.

Rabbi Maurice Kaprow, a chaplain on active duty with the Navy’s Sixth Fleet, currently deployed to the Mediterranean, estimates that 1% of the Navy and 1.5% of the overall American armed forces is Jewish. With about a quarter million American troops now in the Gulf, that comes to between 2,500 and 3,500 Jewish personnel.

“That’s not a huge number on the scale, but it’s a large number for the Jewish community, who doesn’t necessarily know they exist,” said Debbie Astor, a military mom in Sharon, Mass., who is in regular e-mail contact with Kaprow and hundreds of other military personnel through The Brave, a Jewish soldiers listserv she founded and now moderates. The Brave is hosted on the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Web site.

Astor says her listserv is getting several dozen posts a day from soldiers all over the world, though as the forces move into Baghdad, it’s getting skimpier. Last week, Astor heard from a Jewish colonel in eastern Afghanistan who says he’s “the furthermost Jew in Afghanistan.” Astor’s own son is a Marine now in the Gulf, and she has not heard from him since she was deployed.

As rare as Jewish soldiers are in the Midwest, Jewish officers are rarer still. One of them is Sergeant Benjamin Rothman. Originally from New Jersey, Rothman has since lived in South Dakota and Iowa, and is now on active duty with the Army Corps of Engineers.

He’s gotten used to being the only Jewish man, or one of a few, on a base. In a conversation in a synagogue in Iowa, Rothman said that he’s encountered helpful army chaplains, like the kindly man who gave him a siddur, saying, “Take it — no one else is going to ask for it for a while.” Mostly, though, Rothman says he has to explain the rudiments of Judaism, like why he would need to leave for services on Friday night or Saturday instead of Sunday.

On Sundays, many soldiers go to church, and whoever’s left has to clean the barracks. But Rothman got lucky in basic training. He was 23 then, older than the others in training, and his commanding officer didn’t let him clean the whole place alone, so he got a reprieve.

The Army is pretty open about religion, Cohen and Rothman say. They note that information about many smaller religions, such as Wiccan services, is readily available. But Jewish soldiers are so rare that they often have to dig for help on service times and other information. “Nobody even brings up Friday or Saturday services,” Cohen noted. “You have to go up and say, ‘I’m a Jewish soldier.’”

Where she is makes a difference not only in terms of synagogue availability, but also in terms of how locals react to her, Cohen says. In an afternoon spent with a uniformed Cohen in the college town of Iowa City, white-haired men came up and shook her hand, reverent and silent. “There are a lot of veterans around here,” Cohen explained. Rural shoppers at Wal-Mart wanted to share war stories. But a gaggle of college students, pierced and dyed-hair types, called, “You shouldn’t be here” to her when she entered a smoky coffee shop, and some younger people approached her to protest the war — personally.

No one asked for her opinion, and she says that’s beside the point. She has a job to do, and she does it with her head held high. “I definitely have pride in it — it’s not something everyone in America does, in contrast to Israel. I actually think America should require everyone to go through training for a year after high school. It opens your eyes to how the world works, and it teaches you responsibility.”

Her strong Jewish identity has sometimes brought her admiration, she says, and she fondly remembers a 29-year-old female soldier, nicknamed “Mama Yenta,” who kept kosher in basic training, and who showed Cohen that it’s possible to be both Jewish and military.

“Sometimes I feel people look up to me,” Cohen said. “They see that I’m really strong. Yom Kippur, for example — that has been a really strong holiday for me, especially the shofar. I got to go in basic training, and I missed the rest of the services, but I heard the shofar. It made me feel so much better.”

This war’s location — and the news media’s constant references to Israel — has made other soldiers ask Cohen for her political opinions. Israel “comes up a lot,” she said. “People ask, ‘Hey, Cohen, how do you feel about this?’ It’s not always a bad thing, but sometimes it makes me sad.

“The other soldiers don’t know too much about Israel, but they do know that it’s a cause of a lot of problems in the Middle East,” she noted. “I joke that maybe I should change my name tag because I’ll be the first target in Iraq. I’m scared about that, being Jewish in Iraq. Will I stick out like a sore thumb?”

Asked what the Jewish community can do to help soldiers like her, Cohen suggested that people make themselves known to the local military base. “If there’s a way to contact the base, to confirm that the community will cooperate with the military command, that might help the military learn more about the Jewish community.”

Astor, the military mom in Massachusetts, says there are efforts underway to get Passover food to Korea, Afghanistan and Hawaii. “We are just spouses and parents who are getting a crash course in the military, and we’re trying to augment what the Jewish Welfare Board is doing. We need to take other steps to provide more Jewish chaplains and more direct materials besides the usual Passover and Chanukah kits. We also need to tell the Jewish community that these soldiers exist.”

At 4 a.m., Cohen was due to head off for parts unknown. As for Rothman, numerous follow-up calls to the base yielded only the canned message: “Sergeant Rothman has been mobilized.”

On highways in this quiet corner of the Midwest, caravans of Humvees headed through the cornfields to the departure point for Iraq, and no further information was available.

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