Just minutes after the blazing sun set in the Kuwaiti desert last Saturday, and as a lone candle flickered in a tent at Camp Commando near the Iraqi border, one of four Jewish soldiers at the evening Sabbath service began to cry when Rabbi Irving Elson put his hands on his shoulders and prayed.
"Be strong and of courage and trust in the Lord," Rabbi Elson said, quoting from the Book of Joshua.
"I have started to do this for everyone in the congregation; it has become a highlight of the service," he said of the benediction, which he said brought him to the verge of tears himself.
In an e-mail to Rabbi David Lapp, director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, Rabbi Elson observed: "We are all waiting for the war to begin. Most people just want to do it, get it over with and come home."
Rabbi Lapp estimated there are 1,500 Jewish troops in the Persian Gulf region in a force of 280,000 mostly comprised of Americans but also including the British and Australians.
Rabbi Elson, who has been in Kuwait two months, said his "congregation" consists of Jewish troops deployed throughout the Kuwaiti desert. He is the rabbi for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
"This has been the hardest but most important thing I have done in my almost 17 years as a rabbi and Navy chaplain," he wrote.
Another Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Maurice Kaprow, the deputy fleet chaplain for the U.S. 6th Fleet, said he had planned to read parts of the Megillah and to discuss the story of Purim with Jewish troops on Tuesday, the day of the holiday.
"But military requirements intervened," he said by e-mail to The Jewish Week. "We now plan to celebrate a belated Purim later this week."
He added that he was unable to get hamantaschen for the Jewish soldiers and was "forced to substitute carrot cake in place of them."
"On a small ship you do what you can, when you can," he wrote. "We do have Shabbat services every Friday evening. The highlight of our week is Shabbat, when the bakers provide us with challah and we enjoy time in prayer and learning."
Jewish troops will have kosher-for-Passover food thanks to the efforts of several organizations, including the Jewish Community Centers Association, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaismís New York Metropolitan Region and the Jewish Federation of Rockland County.
Bob Dietz, chief financial officer of the JCC Association, said his organization allocated about $25,000 for the food and expenses associated with the effort. It also spends another $5,000 to $10,000 the rest of the year to provide a small Bible, Chanukah menorah and other ritual items on other Jewish holidays.
"We are the only agency authorized by the U.S. government to provide for the educational, religious and moral needs of Jews in the military," said Fani Magnus Monson, the JCC Association’s president of development. "We have been doing this since World War I."
Dietz, who noted that his organization used to be called the Jewish Welfare Board, said that this year about $6,000 worth of matzah, tuna fish and chicken soup with matzah balls were donated by Manischewitz.
Jonathan Feldstein, campaign chair of the Rockland federation, said those wishing to supplement the JCC Association’s efforts in providing kosher-for-Passover food to Jewish soldiers are asked to donate $54 to cover the cost of food for one day for each soldier. Donations, which may be made by credit card at matzoMeals@aol.com, will be sent to Rabbi Lapp’s office.
The METNY Region of United Synagogue is doing the same thing. It is asking for donations to cover the $14 cost of solo seder kits for use by Jewish soldiers in the field who are unable to join a communal seder.
Don Schiller, assistant executive director of the organization, said that in addition to buying the solo seder kits, money raised will be used to buy food for kosher pantries in the New York area.
Donors are encouraged to send a note to the Jewish soldiers that will be included in each solo seder kit they sponsor. One North Carolina family wrote: "We set a place for you at our seder and think of your part in guarding freedom around the globe."
And the father of one teenage donor from Larchmont, N.Y., wrote to the METNY-United Synagogue organizers: "During World War II while stationed in Marrakesh, Morocco, Julianís grandfather helped provide the 83 Jewish soldiers in his Army Air Corps squadron with a Passover seder. Continuing this tradition, Julianís mitzvah commitment is to honor our brave men and women by providing 83 solo seders to the troops now overseas protecting our freedom."
Rabbi Lapp said more than 1,000 solo seder kits were sent to the troops in early February to ensure their arrival on time. In addition, cases of gefilte fish, grape juice and matzah were also sent.
Schiller said donations may be mailed to United Synagogue, Solo Seder Kit, at 155 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
Along with Rabbis Elson and Kaprow, there are three other Jewish chaplains now in the Gulf: two more in Kuwait and another in Bahrain. Another three are standing by to join them in the event of war.
"We want at least one chaplain in each area so they can provide a lot of religious coverage," Rabbi Lapp said.
Rabbi Elson, who has been traveling throughout the Kuwaiti desert the last few weeks to conduct weekday and Sabbath services for the Jewish soldiers, described the services last Sabbath as "awesome."
"I went with the Seventh Marines [who] … are literally in the tip of the spear," he wrote in an e-mail. "We could see the lights of Iraq from our ‘synagogue.’ Every prayer seems to have extra meaning out here, in particular prayers such as Sim Shalom [bring peace] and Hashkiveinu [a prayer for Godís protecting love]."
In his e-mail to Rabbi Lapp, Rabbi Elson said he conducted morning services at the Marine/Air Force Forward Air Base at Al Jabr with two Jews, one he identified as the son of the owner of the Jerusalem II Kosher Pizza restaurant in Manhattan. He said he then picked up his tactical gear and went north, spending the night at Camp Coyote.
"I love doing services up there," he wrote. "It’s way up north, freezing but VERY spiritual. It was a beautiful night, full of stars and a full moon. We had about a dozen kids."
In the morning, he headed further north for morning services with only two Jews, "since most of the battalions were out on patrol."
"When I asked them what they were thankful for this week, most of them just said, ‘Iím thankful to be still alive.’"