After an explosion at a dining hall at an American military base in Iraq killed 22 in December 2004, military dining facilities in the region imposed strict rules against anyone bringing in bags or boxes — except when Rabbi Sarah Schechter tried to enter with a bag of matzah and a box of kosher-for-Passover food.
“They are very strict about this,” Rabbi Schechter said, adding that the guard who stopped her was very apologetic but insistent.
“As I started walking away, a sergeant came up to me and said, ‘Is this your Passover food, ma’am?’” Rabbi Schechter, a Reform rabbi, recalled in an e-mail interview from a classified location in Southwest Asia. “Totally surprised, I mean shocked, that he had any idea what it was, I said yes. He walked me to the guard and said, ‘It’s OK,’ and led me into the facility where he said, ‘Let me show you all the food that has a kosher stamp on it.’”
With that, he led her to the kitchen and showed her the packages of food bearing a heksher or kosher certification and offered to let her kosher the microwave.
“What an amazing experience,” Rabbi Schechter wrote. “For me, this is America! I was just so impressed and yet I’ve had this experience before — people unexpectedly savvy about a small area of life that happens to affect you in a big way. And they get it right!”
Rabbi Schechter, 39, is an Air Force captain who grew up in Manhattan. Her mother, Naomi Sarna, a psychotherapist, still lives in the city. Her father, Rabbi Philip Schechter, now lives with his wife, Rabbi Elizabeth Rolle, and two children in Stamford, Conn. He is a former rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side.
Asked how it was being away from home for Passover, Rabbi Schechter pointed out that she moved to California 10 years ago to become a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, and was “always away from my parent’s home for the holidays so that I could gain practical experience.” But this was the first year she has missed Passover with her husband, Joe Charnes and their 15-month-old, Yael Emunah. They live in Beverly Hills.
Rabbi Schechter, who has a master’s degree in Jewish education, wrote that she decided to enter the military on 9/11.
“That day, as my husband and I listened in horror to the brutal attacks on our country, we agreed that the obvious thing to do was to join the military as a chaplain,” she wrote. “On Sept. 12, I called the recruiter and the rest is history. As soon as I was ordained, I came on active duty. Standing in front of the American flag, taking the oath of office, was one of the proudest moments of my life.”
Rabbi Schechter, who was deployed to Southwest Asia for a four-month stint that ends in late May, noted that she found everyone in “good spirits [at the seder] and very appreciative for the service. I have received very touching letters.”
To prepare for Passover, Rabbi Schechter relied on some books her husband sent and the Internet. American Jewish communities and the Jewish Welfare Board provided many Haggadot; she opted to use the one printed by Maxwell House coffee “because it is traditional and has the most transliteration.”
She led three seders: one at her undisclosed base was attended by 30 people (eight of them Jews), one at an Air Force base for 50 people (eight Jews) and a third at an Army base for 18 people (15 Jews).
None of the sites were in Iraq but all were in the region, and Rabbi Schechter wrote that the military personnel came from all over to attend.
“It was a real joy having our Christian friends at the seder table with us,” she wrote. “They were enthusiastic and pitched in to help in many ways. Several Christian members of the community feel a real kinship with Jews and love learning about the Jewish roots of their religion. At a couple of seders, members really got into making charoset and made several varieties from around the world. Another member made great gefilte fish.”
“The first seder was in a special dining room sectioned off from the main building facility,” Rabbi Schechter noted. “It was perfect. The second seder was in the VIP tent, and the third was in a big warehouse.”
To open the door for Elijah in the warehouse, one of those present opened the huge metal garage door.
In addition to singing such classic seder songs as Dayenu, military personnel sang some of the newer “classics,” including one to the tune of “Louie, Louie” with the words, “Pharoah, Pharoah, Oh baby, let my people go, HUH, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
At the first seder, they heated kosher-for-Passover rations and plain, steamed vegetables. Rabbi Schechter reported that all of the seders had enough Passover food.
“It was very important for me to have a kosher seder,” she wrote. “And communities very generously sent us tons of food. The last base I visited had too much food — macaroons, solo seder kits, etc., to the point where they were begging people to take the food home because there was not enough space to store it all. The dining facilities were fully cooperative and let us use their kitchens. Where they could not provide the right ingredients, we could buy [them] in town.”
Among those sending letters of support to the military personnel were the Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn and the Marlboro Elementary School in the Hudson Valley. And Rabbi Schechter noted that “several morale packages” reached them from “people who signed their names as Dina, Bradley, and the Great Neck Community.” In addition, 20 packages of Passover food with $15 gift certificates in each box arrived from the Rockland-Orange Council Jewish War Veterans in Spring Valley.
To get from one seder to the next, Rabbi Schechter traveled by military plane.
“On the return flight we were so crammed in that it was knee-to-knee all the way,” she wrote. “A little claustrophobic at first, but we all took a deep breath and made the best of it. The plane made several sharp dips, and we all felt airborne like a roller coaster going down a sharp drop. We knew we were safe and that this was routine, so we just laughed and had fun with it.”
In three months, Rabbi Schechter said, the military has told her she will be moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she will join a team of chaplains serving newly enrolled members undergoing basic training.