US Army makes sure Jewish soldiers can celebrate Hanukka

Of the 120,000 to 130,000 American servicemen in Iraq, 1,200 are Jewish, and between 400 to 600 of them will celebrate Hanukka.

hannukah in iraq 248.88 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy)
hannukah in iraq 248.88 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
American Jewish soldiers stationed at a base in western Iraq will have a chance to publicly celebrate Hanukka in a ceremony on Monday. Rabbi Jon Cutler, a Navy chaplain at the Al Asad base in the western Iraqi province of Al Anbar, has helped to provide a public sphere for Hanukka - complete with a menora, latkes, dreidels, and singing - at the Jewish chapel on the first day of the holiday. Cutler, a Reconstructionist rabbi in his early fifties from Pennsylvania, said that the importance of Hanukka "is not just menoras or lights. "It's the sense of respecting each other's faith," he said. "That says a lot about strength and tolerance, our American values." Cutler, one of three Jewish chaplains serving full-time in Iraq, has invited the entire base to the event. He expects a crowd of between 50 and 70 people, including the commanding general of Al Asad. The chaplain and several lay leaders he has trained will guide the audience through songs and blessings, and attendees will have a chance to enjoy latkes and doughnuts. Cutler will also provide an explanation of the holiday. "It's a great experience for non-Jews to learn something about Judaism," he said. One visible symbol of the holiday is the five-foot-tall, eight-foot-wide wooden menora that stands in front of the chapel. Built in a week by civilian contractors from Kellogg, Brown & Root after Cutler obtained permission from his command chaplain, the menora runs on electricity - "for safety reasons," Cutler said - with plastic piping running through its candles. Jewish servicemen at Al Asad will turn the light switches on at night. Cutler's efforts represent one of quite a few public Hanukka ceremonies at US military installations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These range from an event organized at a Coalition Provisional Authority palace in 2004 that nearly set the building's 20-foot drapes on fire to the erecting of a 12foot steel menora from Texas at Camp Taji last year. Rabbi Harold Robinson of the Jewish Welfare Board chaplains council estimated that of the 120,000 to 130,000 American servicemen in Iraq, 1,200 are Jewish, and between 400 to 600 of them will celebrate Hanukka. Regarding those who might not celebrate, he said that not all Jews observe their religion "on a regular basis, and some will be away from major troop centers." For Hanukka, Cutler has made an effort to reach out to Jewish servicemen stationed elsewhere in western Iraq. He has sent out menoras, candles, and Hanukka gelt to other bases in the region, and will visit several - including Ramadi, Fallujah, and Al Taqaddum - during Hanukka week. He also said, "Imagine you want to give your children a Hanukka present and you're out there. It's a very poignant time," Robinson said. "To be honest, it does get fairly lonely not to be with your synagogue and friends," Cutler said. "The best thing here is that the Jewish community has become one big family. We have 12 to 16 people on Friday night who are all fairly close and know one another," he said.