The anxiety level in our house is pretty high 2 rabbis worry about their sons in gulf

LOS ANGELES — Rabbi Alan Henkin heard from his son Michael the day before war erupted in Iraq. At the time, the 21-year-old Army specialist was in Kuwait.

"He said what most people had known. Troops were on the move. He himself was on the move. The weather was getting very hot. The sandstorms were unbelievable. He said he wanted a beef jerky. He didn't know how reliable the mail would be once the war broke out."

Henkin, who is Pacific Southwest regional director of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Encino, is one of two Southern California rabbis with sons engaged in the Iraqi conflict.

"The anxiety level in our house is pretty high," said Henkin during a phone interview Monday. "We're all handling it differently. Our 25 year-old daughter, Ariela, is wearing a yellow ribbon. Our 10-year-old son Matt is getting a lot of questions at religious school and public school."

His wife, Susan, "watches CNN a lot. [The other day] a supply convoy was attacked…Just then our telephone went off. It was just a friend. But you hear the worst, you read about deaths. Each of those deaths represents a family."

Henkin says a nightly prayer for Michael. Stitched together from such eclectic sources as the Torah and a German Jewish prayerbook, the benediction soothes his soul.

To honor Michael, Henkin recently began to recite his special prayer before an audience of 400 at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' biannual convention. He uttered but a few words before tears streamed down his cheeks. Another rabbi had to finish the blessing.

"I worry so much about Michael," said Henkin, "It would be more than devastating if, God forbid, something befell him."

Sometimes, when things get difficult, he talks to his colleague, Rabbi Mordecai Finley, head of the independent Ohr HaTorah congregation in West Los Angeles. Their sons were friends 15 years ago, when they both attended the same Jewish day school. Now the two rabbis have 21-year-old sons in the gulf.

A bearded ex-Marine, Finley is the father of Kayitz, a Marine corporal who participated this week in the battle of Nazariya. Unlike Henkin, Finley knows where his son is because two journalists are embedded in the battalion.

"I have a couple of hard moments a day," said Finley, who is also president of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, a pluralistic seminary for training rabbis and cantors. "I'm overwhelmed, filled with lots of fear. I put it into a box and leave it there until it's at the right time and then I take it out. I'm a public person. If it's brought up, I have to stow it until I'm in the right place, the right frame of mind, to take it out."

For the families of the 250,000 American military personnel deployed in the Persian Gulf area, these are difficult times. They cannot help but worry about loved ones facing Saddam Hussein, who has gassed his own people and killed hundreds of thousands more in wars with Iran and Kuwait.

The feelings of dread might be even more acute for the parents and spouses of Jewish soldiers. Given Saddam's vehement anti-Zionism, one can only imagine the fate awaiting Jewish American servicemen taken as Iraqi POWs. As Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl tragically learned, sometimes being a Jew and an American in parts of the radical Muslim world can be a deadly combination.

One U.S. military officer said she had discouraged Jewish American soldiers from talking to a Jewish newspaper because of security concerns. To publicly identify such men and women as Jews could prove "disastrous" should they fall into Iraqi hands.

Among the nation's 1.4 million servicemen and women on active military duty, 3,083 are Jewish, according to the Department of Defense. The Defense Department has no statistics on the number of Jews among the 1.3 million Americans in reserve and National Guard units.

Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a colonel and chief chaplain of the New York Army National Guard, knows personally the dangers posed by Saddam. During the first Gulf War, he was deployed to Israel as chaplain for U.S. military personnel staffing the Patriot missiles. He remembers braving repeated Scud missile attacks against the Jewish state.

"There was a sense of not knowing what was in those missiles — possible biological or chemical agents — until three or four hours later, when we were given the all clear," said Goldstein, who also served as chaplain at Ground Zero. "My wife, who was back in Brooklyn, had her nerves shredded a little more after each attack."

Against this backdrop, Henkin and Finley try to go on with their lives as best they can. Both pray a bit more and try to be optimistic. Sometimes, though, a torrent of emotions breaks through. Mostly, the rabbis said, they are proud of their young progeny.

Henkin said his son has matured significantly since joining the Army Reserve nearly two years ago. In basic training, Michael lived away from home for the first time, learning how to become self-reliant and pushing himself to his physical and mental limits. Michael grew so cocksure that he later sent younger brother Matt letters offering unsolicited advice on how to lead a better life, Henkin said.

The rabbi wasn't always so enthusiastic about his son's decision to enlist. A product of the turbulent 1960s, Henkin protested the Vietnam War. He said he had some "lingering" misgivings about U.S. power and expressed those qualms to his son. But Michael saw military service as an "adventure, a chance to bond with some good men and women, to serve his country." Henkin said he has since come around to supporting Michael wholeheartedly.

In a show of solidarity, Henkin and other family members recently donned T-shirts inscribed with "We Love You Michael" and took group pictures. The rabbi plans to send the photos, along with a care package, to his son.

Henkin never imagined his son could end up on the battlefield in a post-Cold War world, forcing him temporarily out of Pierce College and into fatigues. Now, he can. And as a precautionary measure, Michael just had his dog tags reissued to remove his Jewish religious affiliation.

Finley had no misgivings when Kayitz decided to put off college and join the Marines. The rabbi, himself, served in the Marines from 1973 to 1976 and credits the experience with giving him a sense of purpose and self-discipline. He figured Kayitz would profit from it as well, although some of his son's high school buddies wondered why a smart Jewish boy would voluntarily put himself in harm's way.

To Finley, there are few greater callings than serving one's country, especially in disarming "a violent, aggressive tyrant" like Saddam.

"The military is a wonderful institution, full of people who are willing to train hard night and day so people can sleep safely in their beds, full of people willing to die for your freedom," he said.

He also favors intervention in Iraq. "I support containing Saddam Hussein but I'm not in favor of war. I wish we didn't have to go to war but I believe there's no alternative."

Finley said Kayitz has personally developed since becoming a Marine on Sept. 11, 2000, a year to the day before the World Trade Center attack. He has worked alongside Kenyan soldiers in Africa, seen the world and earned government funding toward his future college education. In a reflection of how far he has come, Kayitz oversaw in January the loading of weapons and supplies onto ships before shipping out.

"Joining the Marines was a gutsy thing for him to do," Finley said.

He also emphasized that while his spiritual resources sustain him, "I don't have faith that everything's going to be OK; that's out of my hands. Faith means that I and my family will be able to get through whatever happens, and we're hoping and praying for the best."