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Serving in Iraq

by: Rabbi Mitchell S Ackerson - Last updated: 2004-01-04

Chanukah in Iraq

Celebrating Chanukah in Iraq

Rabbi Mitchell S Ackerson is senior Jewish chaplain, Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, he writes about his recent experience of working in Iraq and serving the spiritual needs of servicemen and women.

Chanukah is now over and while my traveling isn't I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts and experiences on Chanukah.

It was to say the least a long week. Nine Chanukah services or celebrations in 8 days in nine locations spaning well over a thousand miles. The first legs were by Hummvee and the rest by Black Hawk helicopter thanks to the Army's 12th Aviation Brigade and their "Operation Chanukah Flight". While the numbers were a little smaller than I expected (night travel is very difficult)the enthusiasm of the attendees made up for the numbers.

There are many people and organizations to thank and I can not do justice to all who donated nor do I wish to slight anyone or any group by excluding them but I would like to especially thank, the Ramaz High School of Manhattan who provided all the Chanukah menorahs and candles, along with a beautiful booklet on Channukah which included stories and songs and a blessings poster. The hundreds of menorahs we distributed from them are a continuation of a long supportive relationship with America's service men and women .

I started down in Kuwait with a first night Chanukah/Shabbos service and dinner, throwing together what items I could and adding in food sent by groups and individuals. The next night was a party and what party is complete without presents. A highlight was the beautiful menorah hand-crafted by one of the soldiers and a friend but lovingly hand painted by the soldier. She took great pride in her work and offered to let me take it on the road but I feared I would break it. I also lit another menorah of olive oil recieved from a friend. Many of the soldiers (here and in other locations)had never seen an oil menorah and didn't even know you could use one so it was educational as well.

We had Jewish music CDs and socks galore as gifts with Chanukah gelt and cookies. The soldiers everywhere joked about the socks - "What are you - my mother?  Next thing I know Rabbi you'll be giving me underwear too!" All joking aside the high quality socks and other gifts were greatly appreciated. The Donin and Telushkin books went like hot cakes, I could have given out 50 more. For many it was the first Jewish music CD they had ever heard and certainly owned. They will be treasured keepsakes for these soldiers for years to come.

The next morning was off to Iraq laden with kosher food and Chanukah presents. One of the soldiers showed off his Israeli Army replica menorah and we were joined by a few non Jews who wanted to learn about Chanukah and what it means. Then we were off to a number of points in-between and arriving in Baghdad. Programs at the Airport, the Presidential palace where we lit the Halaby Menorah next to Sadaam's Presidential Throne Chair, and in Uday and Kusay's palace complex. Some soldiers came in all the way from the Syrian border to join in, another had to have her non-Jewish comrades in arms speak to the Battalion Commander so that she could attend. Even my commanding general, a devout Roman Catholic showed up, in a show of solidarity and impressed the young troops with his genuine down to earth style and his admonition that they should learn all they can about their faith and make the most of the time they have with the Rabbi.

Then it was flight time out to the west and north. It's a giddy feeling to be the only passenger in a two Black Hawk formation but my pilots are thrilled to fly the Rabbi around. We have a wonderful program, one soldier has his mother's menorah and another his grandmother's. All told four of us lit menorahs that night, the lights glowing and truly proclaiming the miracle of Chanukah. We finished up because the chapel was needed for Christmas eve so we adjourned to the dining facility where some of us stayed and schmoozed and answered Jewish questions till 2 AM closing down the DFAC.

The next day the flight was delayed a few hours and I feared that the soldiers at the next location wouldn't be able to wait till I arrived. Wrong again, four hours late they were waiting for me to light the menorah and talk about Chanukah. I pulled out some food and presents and one said, "What did I tell you, the Rabbi never shows up without food."

The next morning we left on the longest of the flight legs but the weather intervened and we had to divert.  The pilots checked out all the possible ways around the storm and we tried again. We got over the first mountain ridge but at the second it was pure black. They apologized profusely but they couldn't do it and by now a third attempt would have been too late for Shabbos so they gave me my choices as to where I could be diverted and I chose to help run that service. Nothing is by chance and my presence was necessary for a number of reasons not necessarily all for the Jewish community. I've spent the rest of the week tracking down some of those who missed our celebrations and they too have been happy to see me.

The pilots of the 12th Aviation Brigade have been tracking me down all week apologizing for not getting me to my final desination. It would have been nice and lots of soldiers were waiting for me but G-d had other plans for me that Shabbos.

What truly impresses me with our soldiers who affiliate and admit their Judaism is their desire to learn more, and their comraderie with each other. While we have former yeshiva students most have limited backgrounds and they devour the books we offer them.

My message (similar in all locations)was on the debate between Hillel and Shammai on the lighting of the menorah. I tell them maalin bekodesh - increase your knowledge,your practice of Judaism. The miracle of the menorah was that the light got brighter each day not dimmer because they believed and were working on a goal, new oil in times of old, new knowledge today, each however was based on rededicating ourselves to G-d and his service. Their flame, the light and neshama (soul) of a simple Jew burns brightest when improving oneself Jewishly and it lights the way and shows the path to others who do not know our faith whether they are part of it or not.

I'm proud to serve these fine men and women, to be with them and to celebrate with them. To give them a little something from home and the American Jewish community. These are gifts not only from our community but from our Creator, who focuses on the personal touch. We reach out one at a time. We spend hours talking to one soldier because the inner flame continues to burn and we want it to burn brightly and outwardly like the menorah, proclaiming the miracle that even today Judaism burns brightly and that we practice it where ever we are, from our homes in Baltimore, to the sand dunes of Iraq, the sun of California  to the slums and bombed out buildings of Baghdad and the Forward Operating Bases of the North.

Hundreds of menorahs burned brightly this year in Iraq and Kuwait proclaiming the miracle of Chanukah, next year may they burn brightly in Jerusalem in the Temple rebuilt, in our Holy Land at Peace.