As Jewish soldiers recited the Ten Plagues and spilled wine from their cups at a seder table in a tent in the Kuwaiti desert, Rabbi Joshua Narrowe observed that the spilled wine was not only "for the Egyptians who died in the Exodus, but also for the Iraqi conscripts and civilians who died" in the 26-day Iraq War.
Aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Mediterranean, Rabbi Maurice Kaprow broke the middle matzah during the seder and said it symbolized "the pain of separation caused by death" and the "irreparable rupture of families (coalition forces and Iraqi alike) left in the wake of this destruction."
And in Baghdad, Rabbi Irving Elson conducted four seders in two nights for members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. Each was held in a different location around the city: the Iraqi Military Academy, the official residence of the Ministry of Information (known as "Baghdad Bob"), the headquarters of the Iraqi secret police and at a building in the U.S. military compound.
The seders, Rabbi Elson said, "progressed amidst the darkness and the sound of machine gun and sniper rifle fire. It was truly an amazing couple of nights. … I have been celebrating Passover as a Jew who had been liberated from Egypt, but this year I had the privilege of observing this festival not only as one who had been liberated but as a liberator."
And in a tent in the desert near Baghdad, about 15 Jewish infantrymen, pilots, medics and truck drivers held a seder that was "meager but festive," according to Army Maj. Jonas Vogelhut.
"Each participant was glad to remember previous seders with wives, children, parents and friends," he said. "Lt. Abraham Falkowitz remarked, ‘I was surprised to see this much Judaism in the middle of a war zone.’ Others agreed. We laughed, cried and had fun. The service concluded with songs and psalms, like this quote Rabbi [Carlos] Huerta read from Psalm 118, "The Lord is on my side, I have no fear.’"
There were a total of nine rabbis officiating at Passover seders in Iraq, Kuwait and with the U.S. 6th Fleet and the U.S. 5th Fleet, according to Rabbi David Lapp, director of the Jewish Chaplains Council of the Jewish Welfare Board.
"The majority conducted three or four seders," he said, noting that he heard of one seder attended by 80 military personnel.
Rabbi Elson, in an e-mail, noted that the military also helped to ensure that solo seder kits supplied by the Jewish Chaplains Council were distributed to Jewish Marines who could not get to a seder.
"To understand the scope of this mission, you have to realize that the sailors, Marines, soldiers and airmen in Iraq are literally scattered throughout the country, some in areas that are hours away by vehicle through sectors not 100 percent secured," he wrote.
Leah Dunne, a 23-year-old six-year Air Force veteran from Patchogue, L.I., attended the seder with Rabbi Narrowe and about 20 Jewish and non-Jewish military personnel.
"The first seder we ate matzah ball soup, baked potato, and salad," she said in an e-mail. "The second night we ate all that, plus some fish that we cooked on the grill. There were plans for some Jewish troops in Iraq to join us, but because of a bad sandstorm they weren’t able to fly in."
Dunne said the Jewish personnel have been meeting for lunch and dinner and making their own kosher-for-Passover meals, consisting of potatoes, egg salad, tuna salad, matzah ball soup and matzah.
"We didn’t have any Passover services, but we are planning on it this coming week," she wrote.
Maj. David Rosner said that attending the seders were personnel from the Marines, Air Force and Army. He said that on the second night, 10 Army soldiers from a nearby Army base were bussed in.
"We had the seders in a tent near a flight line," he said. "There was another tent we used to prepare the meal."
The seder aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt was held in the officers’ dining room for 16 sailors dressed in their finest crisp white shirts and carefully pressed black trousers. The dining room is usually off limits to enlisted men and women, and its furnishings and pictures on the wall of the former American president awed the sailors.
At the end of the first part of the seder, "the wardroom servers brought out platters heaped high with baked fish, potatoes and our version of tsimis, followed by a delicious fresh fruit desert," Rabbi Kaprow wrote in an e-mail.
By contrast, Vogelhut said his seder meal was eaten in a "small, non-descript tent" and that the mess hall had provided paper plates, flatware and cups.
"No meat or main course," he said. "The simple Passover supplies of matzah, gefilte fish and grape juice from the Aleph Institute and the Jewish Welfare Board, combined with generous packages of cookies, dried fruit and candy mailed by Lynne from Arizona and my cousin Stephen Hirsch of Long Island constituted a table fit for a meal. We even used Army-issued Louisiana hot sauce for the bitter herbs."
Rabbi Narrowe said that on Monday he received 30 boxes of kosher-for-Passover food packages sent by the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, along with children’s notes to the troops.
"It was nice of them to send it to us and I can tell you that the troops here appreciated them," he said.
Rabbi Elson said his last seder, in an area held by the Seventh Marines, was the most memorable. It was conducted in a building that had no water or power. He said the regimental chaplain, the Rev. Bill Devine, handed him a box of sacramental candles and said with a smile, "Use these."
"Our seder table looked like a combination of Pesach and Chanukah, all wrapped up into one," Rabbi Elson recalled. "The second challenge involved security. The windows were covered in fear of snipers. … Since all we had to eat were MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), we pulled whatever kosher goodies we could find from care packages from home. In addition to the wine, grape juice, matzah, and marror, our meal consisted of a few cans of gefilte fish, some Pesach candy, and a can of pickled vegetables someone had sent me from Israel."
"The wonderful thing was that we didn’t care," he added. "We were all together, we were all healthy and we were celebrating the Feast of Freedom, surrounded by a people who were just beginning to taste the sweetness of being a people no longer oppressed. … We had been partners with the Almighty in doing for the Iraqi people what He had done for us in Egypt. This, indeed, was a season of freedom and redemption."