"I happen to be in Iraq and am looking for a place to spend Passover," read the e-mail message I received Monday night. That got my attention.
It was from a Jewish woman from Washington, D.C., who said she had arrived in Baghdad two days earlier as a consultant for USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development). She wrote she had come on short notice and had "no time to plan for Passover, aside from bringing a couple of boxes of matzah ball soup mix. No one else who is here is Jewish."
She happened to have read recently a piece I wrote several years ago about the Jewish chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy, and presumably that’s how she found me, wondering if I could connect her with "someone to be in touch with" and looking for "Jewish soldiers here, a Jewish chaplain or others in the international zone to celebrate Pesach with."
By the time the next morning I called Rabbi Harold Robinson, director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council in New York, which caters to the needs of Jews in the military, he already had been in touch with the woman – via a chaplain in Iraq — and was "all over it," he told me.
That meant, he explained, that on request, the woman could receive a "soup-to-nuts seder kit," courtesy of the Department of Defense, including a Haggadah, seder plate, freeze-dried lamb shank, and kittel (white robe). Everything, it seems, but a delicious, home-cooked meal.
But the army does send out, on request, 24 kosher for Passover meals (three a day for eight days).
About 40 such requests have been placed, the rabbi said.
In addition, the JWB (formerly known as the National Jewish Welfare Board and now part of the Jewish Community Center Association) provides its own package of "nostalgic" Passover food to Jews overseas. Those rations feature macaroons, chocolate-covered matzah, a can of gefilte fish and a supply of "serious horse radish." It goes to "anyone we know" in areas of conflict, such as the Persian Gulf and Somalia in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, Rabbi Robinson said.
He estimates that about one percent of the U.S. military is Jewish, meaning there are about 1,500 Jews in Iraq and 750 in Afghanistan. But since they are spread out over such large areas, that means there is little concentration of Jews. He guessed there could be some 50 Jews at the seders in Baghdad next week.
Asked what he considers to be the biggest misperception about Jews in the military, he answered immediately, "that there aren’t any."
His biggest challenge? Recruitment. "There just aren’t enough rabbis to serve" as chaplain, he said. For Passover, there are nine Jewish chaplains in combat areas – four Air Force, three Army, and two Navy/Marine Corps.
During most of the year, the total is four.
As you sit with family and friends at your seder next week, say a prayer for those overseas protecting us.
For more information about the JWB and its work, click here.