Operation Desert Synagogue: Jews in the land of Islam WAR IN THE GULF


WASHINGTON -- Before her husband left for the Persian Gulf last August, Debra Shomer begged him to change the "J" designation -- identifying a serviceman or woman as Jewish -- on his military dog tags.

She feared greater harm might come to him should he be captured by Iraqis and found to be a Jew.

"He wouldn't do it," says Mrs. Shomer of Annapolis, whose husband, Navy Petty Officer David Shomer, is accompanying the USS Comfort hospital ship back to Baltimore. "He said he wouldn't make believe he's somebody he's not. And he's not going to hide the fact that he's Jewish."

Navy airman Jeffrey Goldberg, however, not only removed the "J" on his dog tags, he changed his name to "Jeffrey Snyder" while taking a trip in the gulf region on a holiday leave. And Army Sgt. Michael Kanfer changed the religiousaffiliation on his ID to "P" for Protestant.

"To 'protest,' " explains the Jewish army reservist, now back home in Scotch Plains, N.J.

Because of long-standing hostilities in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab world, many American Jews who served in the gulf say they found themselves walking a tightrope there, trying to practice their religion in a land where their heritage is not recognized and serving alongside Saudi allies who were not necessarily allies of their faith.

"Right from the beginning we were given these messages to be careful," says Army Maj. Richard Andorsky of Fayetteville, N.C., a doctor who'd been with a combat support hospital in Saudi Arabia. "Even though the host nation was an ally to the U.S., they weren't allies to Israel. We didn't know how they'd react to American Jews."

While working in a Saudi hospital in Dhahran, he says, "I didn't personally reveal my Jewish identity. You didn't know who you were dealing with."

Some Jewish personnel said military officials advised them to leaveall religious articles at home and to put "no religious preference" on any identification papers. While Army spokesman Col. Ronald Wolfe says such suggestions may have been made informally by "well-meaning unit leaders," he adds that, "There's no official policy providing that guidance. That's a private matter. Soldiers have the option to put anything they want on their dog tags."

Leslie Freudenheim, curator of the Jewish War Veterans National Memorial Museum in Washington, estimates that about 5,000 Jews -- 1 percent of the American forces -- served in the Persian Gulf. To document the experiences of those troops, she mounted an exhibit of their photos, videos and letters home entitled, "American Patriots: Jewish Soldiers and Operation Desert Storm."

Many Jewish service members tell of meeting in locked rooms at Saudi air bases for weekly Sabbath services -- called "morale support services-J" (again, for Jewish) -- reading from the Torah, sipping grape juice and lighting candles, often while guards stood outside the door.

In order to get to one service, Army Maj. Amiram Cohen, a surgeon from Silver Spring, "had to hitchhike to the chaplain's office on the air base," he wrote in a letter home that is part of the exhibit. "I was then escorted in a shaded car to a secret location with armed guards where we had our service."

"It was all very hush-hush," says Sergeant Kanfer of the "morale" services he and eight others held in Riyadh, calling themselves "The Hebrews of the Arabian Desert." "The service was one of the few things I looked forward to."

Marine Staff Sgt. Alan Adler of Toms River, N.J., wrote to his rabbi last September from the gulf: "Religious practice here is very free and open -- if your religion is Islam. If not, you are out of luck."

While some of the intense security and secrecy surrounding any zTC expressions of Jewish faith relaxed slightly over time, say service members, religious services are still held discreetly and many participants wish to remain anonymous. For one thing, recalls Major Andorsky, there are constant reminders of the Saudi government's anti-Semitism: Saudi atlases had an outline for Israel, but no name, and newspapers refer to citizens of Israel as "Zionist enemies," he says.

But on a personal level, says Sergeant Kanfer, his religion never created tension or ill will when he was among allied Arab forces. "It never came up and we never looked to start anything," he says.

And in fact, in a photograph in the JWV exhibit, Sergeant Adler shakes hands with a Saudi soldier who'd become his friend. "This soldier's name is Khalid," Sergeant Adler's letter to his wife explains. "He told me that if I would convert to Muslim that he would let me marry his sister. . . . What do you think, Ruth? Should I?"

While religious publications and objects weren't allowed into Saudi Arabia at the start of the deployment, by winter, everything from Hanukkah menorahs to camouflage yarmulkes were being shipped over from families and Jewish organizations.

And more than half a dozen rabbis have traveled there, according to the Jewish Welfare Board, which sponsors Jewish chaplains assigned to the military. Recently, the JWB shipped "solo Seder kits" for next week's Passover holiday.

Deborah Cohen has been sending salami, baked goods, gefilte fish and other kosher foods to her husband, who is trying to maintain his kosher diet while overseas.

"The lox was a tremendous success," Major Cohen tells his family on a videotape on which his words are occasionally drowned out by F-15s flying overhead.

But while Jewish troops say they met with little overt conflict, some have spoken of an inner conflict, or at least confusion, over their deployment.

Rabbi Raphael Ostrovsky of Hammond, Ind., says his son, Air Force Capt. Joel Ostrovsky, "had mixed feelings because he knows Saudi Arabia is not friendly to Israel. But he is very patriotic to the U.S. Air Force. He was sent there with a mission and he intended to fulfill that mission. But he cannot help but have mixed feelings. Whom is he helping?"

In one of Sergeant Adler's letters displayed at the JWV museum, he writes, "You know the world political situation is changing when Jewish guys are standing in defense of Saudi Arabia. When I returned from Israel in 1979, I would never have believed that I'd be involved in a situation such as this. At least in the Cold War, you knew who were the good guys and who were the bad guys."

In another letter to a sixth-grade Hebrew school class, he writes, "It is important for Americans as a whole, and especially for us as Jews, to remember that freedom and security have a price. . . . As Jews, it is important that we stand up for what is right."

Major Andorsky says he felt "vindicated" by his belief that he was ultimately defending Israel against Saddam Hussein. "In my own mind, I was fighting for Israel as an American Jew. It didn't bother me that I was there in Saudi Arabia in a land in which the government's ultimate goal was the destruction of Israel."

The gastroenterologist added that being in the Middle East, so close to the land of his forefathers, had a "powerful effect on the psyche." Others, too, spoke of heightened feelings of faith.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, Captain Ostrovsky prayed by himself in a tent for six hours.

"He had time to concentrate and think of what his religion demands of him," says his father. "Being there, he felt the significance of prayer very deeply. The experience meant more to him this year than it ever had in his life."

But as Major Andorsky points out, "People of all religions clung closer to their faiths, being in an atmosphere of uncertainty, anxiety and the continual unknown."

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