Sukkah in Iraq

new york | While it’s unlikely that a hurricane like Ivan will ever sweep through Balad, Iraq, Capt. Shmuel Felzenberg, an Army chaplain, says he thinks his desert sukkah — built for him by U.S. soldiers —could probably withstand the storm.

Felzenberg, a rabbi, is one of a handful of Jewish chaplains stationed with U.S. forces deployed in the Arab world during the Jewish holidays. There are an estimated 1,000 Jewish GIs in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, and the military and a variety of Jewish organizations have gone to great lengths to help them celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot overseas.

“As for an actual sukkah — my battalion’s own Army engineers built me one, which could likely withstand a hurricane!” Felzenberg wrote in an e- mail from Iraq. “And am hoping our welders can do me a nice display-size menorah for Chanukah,” he added.

Celebrating Jewish holidays on the battlefield is not always an easy — or possible — feat. But Jewish soldiers say the army goes to great lengths to enable such celebrations — ferrying soldiers to hubs where they can attend prayer services, shipping Torahs and kosher holiday food to those gatherings and dispatching chaplains from halfway around the world to lead services.

When chaplains are not available, Jewish soldiers often step up to the task, leading services, guiding soldiers in using the lulav and etrog in prayer on Sukkot and helping create a Jewish atmosphere in the desert sands of the Middle East.

“There are some posts where there are very, very few practicing Jews,” said Capt. Estee Pinchasin, a 29-year-old company commander in the 249th engineering battalion. “You end up having to do your own thing and find your own way.”

Originally from Long Beach, N.Y., Pinchasin is based in Fort Belvoir, Va., but spent Rosh Hashanah last year in Kuwait. This year, she expects to be in Kuwait for Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

“It was one of the best services I ever attended in my life,” she said of last year’s holiday services in Kuwait, which were led by Col. Jacob Goldstein, a chaplain who lives in Brooklyn. “I was very impressed. I couldn’t believe the efforts the Army put forth for this.”

The commanding general in the area put out an alert saying any Jewish soldier who wanted to participate in the services should be afforded the opportunity to go, she added.

“People from all over Iraq were transported. It was a special pass,” Pinchasin said. “They had lodging set up for them and machzorim [prayerbooks] and tallises, and books and little classes.”

Organizations like the Aleph Institute, the Jewish Welfare Board and the Jewish Soldier Foundation help fill in the blanks, sending extra kosher food, ritual objects and prayerbooks for the soldiers.

Felzenberg, who lives in Hawaii, said he found the diversity of those who attended this year’s Rosh Hashanah service unique.

“I always find an interesting blend of persons who attend, across a wide demographic,” he said, including Army and Air Force personnel — “infantry guys, aviators in flight suits, medical folks” — civilian contractors, and even a couple of non-Jews who came out of curiosity.

There were no Iraqis, however.

“To my husband, this is a really important time to be in Iraq,” the chaplain’s wife, Dini Felzenberg, said just before the holidays.

“Partly, I feel it’s bad that he’s not here with us — of course, it’s hard for the kids to not have your daddy here,” she said. “On the other hand, I and the kids are extremely proud of what he’s doing. He’s not here because he’s doing something we are honored by. When he read Megillah in Saddam Hussein’s palace [last Purim], he wasn’t here but he was in the next-best place.”

As for this holiday season, she said, “When you’re deployed to that area, it’s very important for Jewish soldiers to have their needs met for the High Holidays.’


In harm's way