A bittersweet farewell to Frank M. Reid at Bethel AME
The Baltimore Sun

Amid war, a pause for faith

Sun Staff

Tonight at sundown, Jewish military personnel serving in the Persian Gulf will gather on aircraft carriers, in mess halls, in canvas tents or simply around a Humvee for a celebration of a liberation.

Pausing for the Passover seder, the warriors will mark the exodus of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.

"Coming together [for a seder] in this biblical land, rich with history from the Old Testament, combined with the happiness I see every day in the Iraqi people now that they are free from the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein, brings warmth to my heart and a smile to my face," Maj. Jonas Vogelhut wrote in an e-mail interview from his post outside Baghdad.

"Jewish soldiers helping mostly Muslim people gain their freedom, much like we gained our freedom from Pharaoh so many years ago - that's the American way."

Passover, with its memories of home and family gathered around the table, is a difficult time to be in a foreign land. In recent weeks, the Jewish community in the United States has been mobilizing to help troops fulfill their religious obligations and provide a taste of the holiday.

The Chaplains Council of the New York-based Jewish Welfare Board has been sending cases of Passover food to Kuwait, where chaplains will organize community seders like the one Vogelhut hopes to attend with fellow soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division and others nearby, including soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division.

"The facility will most likely be an abandoned warehouse or field tent set up in the desert, but we'll make that house a home," Vogelhut wrote.

For the soldier who can't get away from his unit, there is the solo seder kit.

The Chaplains Council has sent kits and cases of food for communal celebrations for the estimated 2,000 Jewish military personnel in the Persian Gulf region. The kits contain the basics for a do-it-yourself seder: matzo, grape juice (to substitute for the wine), a Haggada, the book containing the seder ritual, cans of chicken soup with matzo balls and gefilte fish.

"If they are in combat and cannot come together, then a soldier can stay in his tent and have his own seder there using the Haggada and matzo and grape juice," said Rabbi David Lapp, executive director of the Chaplains Council and a former military chaplain.

"If possible, he can get together with a buddy of his, or two or three. There are no rules concerning this."

The solo seder kit may not seem like much. But those who have received them in the field say they are greatly appreciated.

"When you are a solider in a field situation, especially in a combat zone, little things become very important," said Jeff Slotnick of Tacoma, Wash., who relied on the solo seder kits a number of times during his 21 years in the military.

His son, Joshua, 19, of the 326th Engineer Battalion, is in Iraq and might have to resort to a kit. Slotnick said he had not heard from his son in weeks. He knows only that Joshua - like him an Orthodox Jew who wears a camouflage yarmulke as part of his uniform - will observe it as best he can.

Passover in Iraq has presented its share of logistical challenges. Chaplains have complained of insufficient kits or supplements of fresh food, such as produce, according to The Jewish Week.

The Chaplains Council initially sent 1,500 solo seder kits, about double what it sends to military chaplains in peacetime, supplemented by cases of food for Passover for use in group seders. Last week, in response to increased demand, 200 more kits were hurriedly mailed.

For the strictly observant, keeping kosher is difficult, and keeping kosher for Passover, with its prohibition of leavened products, is even harder. Capt. David Goldstrom, a rabbi who is a chaplain with the Army in Kuwait, needed to seek rabbinical expertise from the Orthodox Union in New York.

Is Snapple juice produced in the United States with an Arabic label kosher? How about milk in cardboard containers produced in Kuwait? Kellogg's cereal from Germany? Lay's Potato Chips from the Middle East?

"Not many of the soldiers keep kosher, but a few do, and there is such an assortment of packaged foods produced all over the world," Goldstrom wrote.

Answering his queries was not easy. "Each of your questions requires research for accurate answers," replied Rabbi Yosef Grossman, a kosher expert. "Thus I will give the answers to you as they become available."

The verdict: The Snapple is out, not kosher. The same for the milk, because of the possibility of camel's milk being added. The cereal is kosher.

And the potato chips are still under investigation.

The Chaplains Council has been sending solo seder kits to American troops since World War II, Lapp said. Synagogues and religious schools help, often including personal messages.

For the solider in the field, the Passover supplies sent from the Jewish community at home provides a link to faith and family. "It's something special that other people didn't get," said Jeff Slotnick. "It certainly identifies you as a Jewish person. And, on the bittersweet side, it reminds you of what you're missing."

This Passover, Slotnick is thinking of his son.

"I was a soldier for 21 years active duty. My wife is still in the military. My dad was in the military. My grandfather was in the military. We're all Jewish, and we've served in every major conflict since World War I," he said.

"As a soldier and as an American, I understand the necessity of my son's service, and I'm very proud to bursting of what my boy is doing. As a papa, I miss my son."

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