Each day this week, Rabbi Jacob Goldstein of Brooklyn, chief chaplain of the New York National Guard, recited morning prayers at a sukkah erected in the plaza facing the main doors of Saddam Husseinís main presidential palace in Baghdad.
"It’s a six by eight sukkah and it is there for all to see," he said by phone from Baghdad. "So there I am every morning, benching lulav and esrog," he added referring to the ritual objects used in prayers during Sukkot.
Goldstein brought five lulav and esrog sets with him when he flew from New York to Kuwait last month. He kept one, distributed three to the three other rabbis in Kuwait and Iraq, and personally carried the fifth set to Bagram Air Base, the American military headquarters in Afghanistan. Rabbi Jacob Goldstein said he made the three-day, round-trip journey in Air Force cargo planes after being told that the only way to ensure that they would arrive undamaged was to transport them personally.
Jewish troops at Bagram Air Base, located about an hour north of the capital Kabul, had their own sukkah erected next to the chapel and the dining hall, according to Army Sgt. Leslie "Perl" Wohlfeld.
"It’s approximately 25-feet square and covered with a special netting," she said in an e-mail message. "For the top, we used tree branches that were cut by the tree engineers the week before the holiday."
In addition to the lulav and esrog Rabbi Goldstein brought, Wohlfeld said the soldiers in Bagram had a set sent by the Aleph Institute in Florida that arrived about a week before Sukkot began. She said that about a dozen Jewish servicemen attended the holiday services last weekend and that she and Rabbi Barry Baron, spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Vestal, N.Y., prepared the weekend meals. Rabbi Baron, a chaplain with the New York National Guard, has been on active duty since May.
For the Friday night dinner, Wohlfeld said they prepared chicken, soup, potato kugel and rice, and had grape juice/wine, challah, fruit and cake. For Saturday and Sunday lunch, they had bagels, rye bread and salad as well as corned beef, pastrami and turkey that Rabbi Goldstein brought with him.
"The weather has been very pleasant, in the 80s during the day and the 40s in the evening," she wrote.
Wohlfeld is an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn who is assigned to the signal group.
"I am the non-commissioned officer in charge of the night shift help desk," she said. "The help desk is where we fix computers."
Wohlfeld said this was her first time away from friends during the holidays.
"I try not to get too emotional over it because I know I am here for a reason, that God sent me here to do a military and spiritual mission," she wrote. "The Army is very accommodating when it comes to the Shabbas and holidays."
Rabbi Goldstein said the 13 Jewish servicemen who attended Sukkot services with him last weekend in Tallil, south of Baghdad, were "excited" that there was a lulav and esrog for the holiday. He noted that a few had never seen them before.
"We’re eating kosher MREs (meals ready to eat), fresh fruits and vegetables and gefilte fish from cans while sitting in a very hot sukkah just like the Jews did [generations ago]," he said.
"On top of that, we have four large plates of non-perishable kosher food that arrived before Yom Kippur and that will be used during Sukkos," Rabbi Goldstein said, noting that the delivery was arranged by Meredith Weiss of the Jewish Educators Network in Rockland County. "Among the food were challahs that we gobbled up for break-the-fast. … The Jewish soldiers here are going to be eating very, very well. Volunteer organizations did a phenomenal job."
The Jewish Educators Network also arranged for a group of school children in Boca Raton, Florida, to make sukkah decorations that were sent to the chaplains, along with notes of support.
Rabbi Goldstein also brought with him from New York five Torahs that Jewish troops in Iraq and Kuwait used during the Jewish holidays. New York area synagogues loaned four and the fifth was a miniature Torah from the Lubavitch organization.
Before leaving with them, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, whose congregation loaned one of the Torahs, said it took some effort to get them insured. Taking them into a war zone, he said, "was like a claim waiting to happen."
But he said Herb Lippin of Gramercy Insurance in Rego Park, Queens, managed to get Lloyd’s of London to insure them under an all-risk policy that included terrorism. Members of the New York Board of Rabbis, of which Rabbi Potasnik is president, paid the $10,000 premium. Rabbi Goldstein is slated to bring back the Torahs at the end of the month.
Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson said he conducted High Holy Day services in Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq and in Doha, Kuwait, for about 300 Jewish military and civilian personnel, many of whom were impressed that there was a "real Torah to see and use."
"Many soldiers got their first aliyah or participated in some form or fashion in the service," he said. "It was very participatory and we held a number of informal as well as formal discussions on different topics. Marriage and relationships as well as conversion were as always major topics Jewishly."
Rabbi Ackerson said that services were even held in one of the former presidential palaces.
"Most soldiers came in essentially for a Rosh HaShanah retreat as they came in Friday and left Monday morning," he said.
"We even had Tashlich [a prayer for the removal of sins] in one of Udai and Kusais [Hussein’s] lakes," he said.
Rabbi Ackerson said he was most impressed with the fact that with few exceptions the soldiers (both men and women) came on time and stayed until the end of the service.
"Who knows, we may even get a shidduch out of this down the line," he said, referring to a marriage among the soldiers in attendance.