Sukkot in Baghdad

by Baila Olidort - BAGHDAD, IRAQ

October 10, 2003

Jewish soldiers stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq did not sit comfortably in their local synagogues alongside their families, this Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But just as surely, the holidays did not pass them by either. In fact, some of the 1200 Jewish soldiers now serving in the region observed the High Holy Days for the first time ever.

When Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Jacob Goldstein went to Iraq two weeks ago, he took 100 prayer shawls, four Torah scrolls, and 100 prayer books with him. Goldstein, who is Chief of Chaplains for New York State Army National Guard, says 100 soldiers joined the Rosh Hashana services in Kuwait City with many more in other locations both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With 27 years of experience, Goldstein anticipated the desire for Jewish soldiers to identify, particularly during the High Holy Days season. The sense of alienation for Jews in places like Iraq or Afghanistan can be profound, and there is no better antidote than discovering a community of Jews within the larger community of American forces, to foster sense of spiritual camaraderie.

Giving physical shape to the community are the dozen sukkahs—makeshift huts—that Col. Goldstein arranged to have shipped through Aleph Institute, where Jewish soldiers wanting to observe the holiday will be taking their meals (kosher rations were airlifted for the occasion) during the weeklong festival.

Goldstein, who will be stationed in Baghdad for several weeks more, also took a dozen lulavs and etrogim with him. These are the “four kinds” –the willow, the palm, the myrtle branch and the citron—each representing a different “kind” of Jew—along the entire spectrum, yet all bound together to make the observance of the mitzvah possible.

We are a people so few in number, every one matters. Perhaps this is nowhere more keenly felt than in the soul of a Jew out in the Afghan desert. And when he takes the four kinds in his hand, and when he joins his fellow Jews in the sukkah on the sand, he will experience, perhaps better than anyone else, the meaning of Jewish unity.

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