Shortly before the start of the High Holy Days last year, a Jewish captain in Iraq sent an urgent message asking for a holiday sermon he could deliver to the Jewish troops with him.
Rabbi David Nesenoff, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown, L.I., learned of the request and sent his sermon along with a prayer for the soldiers. That initial contact has resulted in Rabbi Nesenoff developing what he now calls his “overseas congregation.”
Not only did he send his holiday sermon to Jewish military lay leaders overseas this year, but he also composed a prayer for the troops’ safety and is planning to Web cast his congregation’s holiday services to the troops worldwide and others on www.rabbilive.com. It is to be recorded so it can be accessed at any time.
“I have received lovely e-mails from the servicemen and from the mother of one of the captains,” the rabbi said of the reaction last year.
In a letter last year, Capt. Stephen D. Schwab in Camp Taji in Iraq wrote that he planned to read the sermon to his soldiers and that he appreciated Rabbi Nesenoff’s support.
“It’s difficult observing out here, but the support of you and others like you gives us strength and reminds me not only why I’m proud to be an American, but also why I’m proud to be Jewish,” he wrote. “I will take you up on your offer to be a rabbi ‘from afar,’ as I am frequently asked questions I cannot answer.”
Maj. Bonnie Hartstein, a medical doctor who heard Schwab read Rabbi Nesenoff’s sermon, said in a letter to the rabbi that she found the sermon “funny and poignant — especially over here where there are so few Jews and our identity is often defined by stereotypes and cultural symbols.”
She said the sermon “spoke to what it really means to be Jewish,” which Hartstein said is all the more important “especially in this part of the world.”
Rabbi Nesenoff said his sermons are appropriate for non-Jews. In this year’s sermon, for instance, he retells the stories of four people who were faced with what at first appeared to be insurmountable obstacles but in the end proved to be fortuitous.
The rabbi said he has informed his congregation that it is now “sharing your rabbi with the military forces throughout the world who are hearing our prayers and sermon.”
Debbie Astor, who lives in a Boston suburb and is the founder of moderator of The Brave, a listserve for the families of active duty Jewish military, said she has been working with Rabbi Nesenoff and Jewish military personnel. She noted that Rabbi Nesenoff’s sermon is often all that Jewish lay leaders have for the High Holy Days.
“There are no prayer books and so the sermon is read and discussed and then they open the packages that people from all over the country have sent them,” she said. “For people at bases with no other Jew, or for a sailor on a ship who is alone, this is a kind of a connection for them. … We’re trying to bring Jewish life in small ways to as many as we can long distance.”