“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.