Sunday, October 27, 2013

Just a Jew in the Pew

I couldn’t stop looking at the upside down Siddur Sim Shalom on the bookshelf in the back of the Jewish Chapel.  On Friday nights, the Jewish community uses a mixture of Gates of Prayer (primarily for Kabbalat Shabbat) and Likrat Shabbat (primarily for the Evening Service).  We keep around the Siddur Sim Shalom copies for Shabbat/Festival Morning services and because there is really nothing else to do with them. 

There it sat staring at me with its upside-down lettering on the binding standing out against all the other uniformly shelved books.  It was killing me.

There are a lot – and I mean a lot – of wonderful things about not running services in the Camp Foster Jewish Chapel on Friday nights.  My rush to pull myself together and get to services early has turned off; my need to be the last person out of the chapel on Friday night (“to win Kiddush”) has diminished. 

But while I sit back and let Rabbi Yonina Creditor take charge of the service, I find myself staring at little things and obsessing over them.  

My first week, I stared down a picture frame that still had plastic protector over it; when the ark opened I noticed the light was out.  The following Thursday, I went into the chapel and fixed them both.
For some reason, my eyes wandered to the back of the room this past week.  And there it was.  I couldn’t leave the room without fixing it.

Transitions are tough.  I trust Rabbi Creditor implicitly, and I pretty much begged my leadership to send her/any rabbi out here to serve the base community.  But a little bit of me is sad to see that part of my life come to an end, to see the chapel that I tried to restore being run by another, to let go of the reins.  It’s tough…but it’s awesome. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

coming soon...a blog post from Yoni

Shabbat is getting earlier here, and unfortunately Yoni's work schedule doesn't always allow him enough time to get home and write a blog post in time. But check back later in the weekend and you'll be sure to find one! 

Friday, October 18, 2013

rhythms of a military life

Most people live within at least one set of definable cycles; yearly events that help to mark the passage of time and enable people to feel comfortable and secure in their everyday lives.  Many of us, for example, are subject to the Jewish holiday calendar. The four weeks between Rosh Hashannah and Shmini Atzeret often feel like an onslaught, an inescapable never-ending stream of holidays, but those four weeks also help us to feel that we are at the start of a new year. And I know for sure that my parents would say that Pesach is one of the defining moments of their year – the lead-up, the actual holiday, and the eventual relief that there’s an entire year between you and the next time you have to go through all that craziness. A college student might map out his or her year based on the academic calendar or – let’s be honest – based on vacations. Sometimes, it’s easiest to think of college as surviving from one vacation to the next: summer break to fall break, fall break to Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving to winter break, winter break to spring break, spring break back to summer. Military families often live in three-year cycles for the simple reason that most postings last for three years.

These cycles that we depend on don’t only exist on a yearly level. Oftentimes, people (and families) operate on specific day-to-day schedules that create a sense of consistency from one day to the next. Wake up at 6, out the door by 7, work all day, home by 6 for dinner, watch TV, go to bed.

While I very much operate within the yearly structure of Jewish and secular holidays (sometimes living from one 96-hour-weekend with Yoni to the next), I don’t always feel like the military life is conducive to a daily or monthly schedule. Or at least not my military life. Instead, I find myself living in a cycle of unusual, or unpredictable, events. Take 2013 for example: In February, I went home to New York for about a month to surprise my dad for his birthday. Soon after I returned, Margot came to visit me in Okinawa for a week, and together we spent about a week in Tokyo. Less than a week later it was Pesach, and Yoni was leaving for a week or two. In the beginning of May, I went back to the states for another month. The summer was more or less normal, but then Yoni left for Afghanistan and Talya arrived and the whole cycle started again.

Don’t get me wrong. All of these were good things – or at least most of them were. But they all contribute to a general feeling that I am constantly adjusting and re-adjusting my sense of what is normal. As soon as I get used to having a visitor here, the visitor leaves – and then I have to get used to spending my days alone again. When Yoni travels, or when I do, there’s always a re-adjustment period for the two of us where we remember how to be together, living in the same place, in the same time zone. And without a job to regulate my sense of the everyday, I don’t always pop back in to “regular” life (whatever that is) as soon as an irregular period is over. I would if I could, but more often than not, I have to re-create a regular life for myself; get back into a rhythm of tutoring, volunteering, having lunch with friends, and taking Penny to the beach. 

I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say here except that this is something I’ve been thinking about lately. As our time here in Okinawa starts to wind down (not sure I can really say that since we’re only just about 2/3 done but I like to think of it that way) and as we start trying to negotiate orders for next duty station, I find myself wondering sometimes what it will be like to go back to the “real world.” 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Report from Afghanistan, take 2

“I don’t think there are any Jews at that FOB (Forward Operating Base), but you should go anyway.”
“Err?” responded the very confused junior officer rabbi to the very senior officer rabbi (who is probably reading this, so we will note that he is also a strong and fearless leader who has been known to slay dragons).
“Who knows what you might find?!”
“Oorah, Sir.  Semper Fi.”
[Fact: no matter how absurd the action or how little you understand of what is being asked, the best answer is almost always “Oorah”; also acceptable: “Rah”, “Err”, and “Semper Fi”; not acceptable: whatever weird sound the Army makes – it sounds stupid)

I went to Afghanistan to serve Jewish personnel stationed out there.  I never once expected that I would be drawing the packed synagogues that most rabbis hope to sell out on the High Holidays, but a little bit, I thought I would be seeing more people.

In my head, images of Jewish chaplains of the yesteryear swirled: black-and-whites of High Holidays services in Okinawa following V-J Day in 1945, scenes from hotels in Saigon where Jews congregated for their Seders in the 60s… Maybe that happened earlier in the war to some extent, but not so much right now.  The war is drawing down; we’re in the end phases – whole FOBs are disappearing into the deserts...

The Osprey (MV-22/Flying Awesomeness) took us from Leatherneck to the FOB where we were to spend the end of Rosh Hashanah and all of Shabbat Shuvah.  It was a lot weird for me to travel on Yom Tov – something that I hadn’t done since Middle School, but I acquiesced.  (My halakhic rationalization:  My job is to provide for Jews, and the MV-22 was going to fly whether I was on it or not.  Better to fly on Yom Tov than on Shabbat.)

The chaplain stationed at this FOB met us shortly after we landed, and told us that he tried to pass information but he wasn’t sure what would come of it.

As Shabbat approached on Friday, RP and I set up for a small service.  We unpacked our JWB Siddurim (Prayer Books), figured out which way was West, and arranged a few seats in a semi-circle.  The chapel provided us a table and some leftover Passover MREs (that were absolutely delicious – I highly recommend the Passover Beef Goulash and the Kippers were surprisingly delicious).  RP dug up a tablecloth and pulled out the little bit of kosher wine (for sacramental purposes only).

A Major from the National Guard unit came in early and thanked me for coming out.  He’d been in country for nearly 6 months and hadn’t seen a rabbi.  While he is decidedly and enthusiastically Reform – he was very proudly Jewish.  An Army medic and an Air Wing marine arrived shortly thereafter.

Three Service members, my RP and my fellow chaplain.  We six made up the Shabbat and Rosh Hashanna crowd at a FOB in Afghanistan.

At any synagogue in the country, that is a failure. 

One of the local layleaders asked me if I consider that a depressing mission.  Am I let down by the small numbers?  Is it worth it?

That was my best Shabbat service in years.
That was my most satisfying Shabbat experience in months.

We talked Torah and Judaism.  We laughed about non-Jews (sorry to the non-Jewish readers, but sometimes it has to be done).  We celebrated the quiet confines of the chapel that allowed all of us to just be alive.  The medic who still has time out there asked a lot of questions about practicing Judaism and keeping her roots alive with not much support.  The Major regaled us with Jewish adventures in South Carolina and Afghanistan.  

I didn’t go to Afghanistan expecting to bring thousands of people closer to God in one foul swoop.  But on that night on that little FOB in southern Afghanistan, I'd like to think I did my part. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

...And I'm back.

Sometimes it’s nice to get off Okinawa, even for just a month.

It was a good trip, but I think next trip off the island will need to be to some place more entertaining and less dusty; “the Sandbox” is not a misnomer for Southwest Afghanistan. 

There is still a war going on; we are still going on missions – but with a lot more Afghan military members. Unfortunately, Taliban is still fighting back. 

But for being smack in the middle of a war-zone, Camp Leatherneck is not so bad.  The amenities are so-so; not great but a lot like sleep-away camp - except with lots of explosions in the background.

My religious program specialist (RP2 Worth) and I spent the chagim wandering around, pestering chaplains, meeting Jews and hanging out with the Padres (all British Military Chaplains go by the term ‘padre’). 

I’m pretty tired having returned home recently.  Instead of writing forever, I figured I’d put up a couple of pictures and call it a day until next week.  Enjoy.

The view from the bunker behind the Flight line chapel.
The chaplain saw camels the day before.

Behind the Flight Line Chapel

9/11 Memorial Observance
Truly interesting/emotionally-charged experience commemorating 9/11 in Afghanistan.
The Chapel arranged for Jewish Service on Erev Yom Kippur.
Remember what I said above about summer camp?  Same benches.

I tried to be artistic.
Fun fact: the frame of the Sukkah was built by a Jewish carpenter.
A Special Forces Jewish Carpenter and Combat Engineer.

RP2 and I work on the Sukkah.
The Sukkah in its full glory.

Another view of the Sukkah with a little of the base in the background.

Have you ever seen a Lulav dry out?
If so, have you ever seen a fresh lulav dry out completely before the fourth day of Sukkot?

Havdalah in the Sukkah during the middle of Sukkot

Me and the British Padres (its hard to see except in black and white because its dark outside)
The Marine Corps and Army chaplains and RPs at our farewell.

Me and RP2
In front of the Chapel.