The Philadelphia Jewish Voice

October 2006

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Babylonian Torah: The ark at the Jewish chapel at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq.

High Holidays In Baghdad
Jewish servicemen keep the faith.

-- Captain Howard J. Perl

I think it is very impressive that the Army will give Jewish soldiers the time off required to celebrate the holidays. In fact, the 3rd Infantry Division's head Chaplain (not Jewish) sent out a memo strongly suggesting that all Jews who requested time off be given the time to celebrate Rosh Hashanah whenever possible. My Commander (a Marine Lieutenant Colonel) had no problem giving me two days off to celebrate. 

Monday afternoon, I took a helicopter flight with a Sergeant from Camp Taji to Baghdad, about a ten minute ride. In Baghdad, we were met at the helipad by Rabbi Schranz, a Navy [Cdr] Chaplain. Rabbi Schranz took us over to billeting, where we checked in and were assigned a cot in a large air conditioned tent within walking distance of the mess hall, Post Exchange and internet cafe, about 3/4 of a mile from where the services were held, in one of the base chapels. 

One of the congregants made a handmade Ark for the Torah, and we had candles, a Kiddush cup, Machzors, challah, apples, and honey. What more could we ask for? After services Friday night, we made Kiddush and had some challah with honey, and then about 14 of us went to dinner together in the army mess hall. 

Babylonian Tashlich: Soldiers participate in a tashlich service in Baghdad, Iraq, body-armor and all!
First day Yom Tov, services began at 9:00am. We went through the Shacharit service, and yes, we marched our Torah around the Chapel. It was quite a sight and very enjoyable! The Rabbi read the Torah, we gave out the aliyahs and the Rabbi reminded us how lucky we were to get an aliyah on Yom Tov for free! I had the third aliyah, it was quite an honor. I was very proud that my father's name was mentioned in an aliyah in Baghdad, Iraq for Rosh Hashanah. 

We all had kosher MRE's (Meal, Ready to Eat - the army's field rations) for lunch. Mine was a kosher-for-Passover MRE, with a can of salmon, some raisins, cranberries, and walnuts. We had three beautiful, delicious challahs supplied by the mess hall; there is a Filipino man there who makes them for Friday night services every week, and the Rabbi had Kedem and Rashi wine for Kiddush. 

The chapel was right on the river, so after lunch we went straight outside for Tashlich, after which we went back to the tent, and then met for dinner later on at the mess hall. 

Second day Yom Tov it was pretty much the same thing. Both days, the Rabbi gave inspiring sermons. Almost all of the service was either reading or singing with the Rabbi, responsive readings, and congregant readings. Other than the Rabbi reading the Torah, almost everything else involved all of us together. It was one of the most personal and moving services I have ever attended, partly because of where we were, right in the heart of Baghdad. Here were 14 Jews who had come together to insure Rosh Hashanah was celebrated as they always had celebrated it, no matter that we were in a combat zone. 

Troops from all around Iraq come to Baghdad to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with Rabbi Schranz.
When the Rabbi said this would be a Rosh Hashanah service we would always remember, I knew he was right. Although we were not in imminent danger, we had Military Police guarding the Chapel during our services as a safety precaution. Right in the middle of services, we heard the loud booms of some Improvised Explosive Devices (road side bombs) going off in the distance. On the second day, we heard 15 big booms from some artillery rounds being shot at the bad guys. The Chapel shook with each artillery round that was fired - we just kept on going like it was thunder from a rain shower. 

After services, we were lucky enough to get a table without reservations at the Army mess hall, then the Rabbi took us back to the helipad for our return flight to Camp Taji. It was quite an experience, very enjoyable. Certainly, I wish I was back home with my family for the holidays, but the Army and the Rabbi certainly went out of their way to make the holidays as nice as possible under the circumstances. 

Courtesy of Jews in Green.