Faith amid conflict

American Jewish chaplains share stories from the Iraqi frontlines.

us iraq 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
us iraq 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Two years ago, Andrew Shulman's designated location on Shabbat mornings was the auditorium of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Malden, a suburb of Boston. Shoulders covered by a tallit, Shulman followed the service in the siddur, lending his deep, ebullient voice in prayer and song. Before services ended and everybody left for lunch, Shulman would stand up before the congregation and discuss the schedule for the following week. This was among his responsibilities as the synagogue's program director. Shulman's wife, Lori, and their two daughters remain in Malden, but Shulman has a new job and a new address. Since last year, he is one of four full-time Jewish chaplains stationed with the US military in Iraq. Like the Jewish personnel they minister to, these chaplains come from diverse backgrounds. They include a Beverly Hills native whose career included stops in Israel and Massachusetts, an eloquent Pennsylvanian with a history of family military service and a New Yorker who witnessed the horrors of war on a road near Baghdad. In separate e-mail and telephone interviews, three of these men - Shulman, Jon Cutler and Ira Ehrenpreis - discussed the destinations their respective paths have led them to in Iraq. (A fourth, David Goldstrom, did not respond to a request for an e-mail interview.) Routes to a chaplaincy American Jews comprise just 2.5 percent of the US population, but they are well represented in fields such as journalism, the performing arts and entertainment. One notable exception is the military. Cutler wrote that the Jewish military population is 0.5%. What led Shulman, Cutler and Ehrenpreis to become mavericks? For this trio, joining the chaplaincy seems less motivated by a desire to challenge a trend and more by a determination to serve God. All three cited religion when answering why they became chaplains. Cutler, who grew up near Philadelphia, joined the chaplaincy 21 years ago and served in the Gulf War of 1991. His decision to serve is grounded in Deuteronomy 11:22 ("walking in all His ways"), Exodus 34:6 ("a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness"), and the Sifre Deuteronomy, Ekev: "This means that just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too must be gracious and compassionate... As the Holy One is faithful, you too must be faithful. As the Holy One is loving you too must be loving." Cutler interprets these passages to mean that through serving Jewish and non-Jewish military personnel, he is serving God. Shulman, a yeshiva graduate who has studied in Jerusalem, remembered the teaching of his rabbi, Rav Noah Weinberg of the Jewish outreach organization Aish Hatorah. Weinberg "always taught that it's each and every Jew's responsibility to teach what they know to other Jews," Shulman wrote. "So it made a lot of sense - take Judaism on the road and share what I learned in yeshiva with other Jews in the military." Ehrenpreis, a New Yorker and a chaplain since 1995, responded succinctly when asked why he became a chaplain, saying that "a big motivation" was "kiddush Hashem." Religion was not the only motivation: Shulman wrote that he was looking for something different and likes it that he is no longer "cooped up in an office." Ehrenpreis deadpanned that "in my first interview, they asked why I was interested in the army. I said that I heard the food was good." Cutler's reasons include more personal ones. His father had participated in the Allied cause as a medic against Hitler's Germany in World War II, and had been wounded during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Cutler also wanted to serve his country and assist what he called an underserved population: Jews in the military. Finding room for religion Iraq has been a center of both opportunity and oppression for Jews. Biblical prophets lamented the Babylonian captivity, but Jewish communities developed in Mesopotamia before 20th-century Iraq sent troops to attack Israel during the War of Independence, and, under former ruler Saddam Hussein, bombed Israel during the Gulf War and sent money to families of Palestinian suicide bombers. The American military represents a separate group from the Iraqi populace, which is divided, in part, due to religious tensions. But Shulman, Cutler and Ehrenpreis are setting a peaceful example by providing Jewish servicemen and women with chances to practice their faith, which is part of the mission of a chaplain. "Chaplains are commissioned to provide ministry to those of their own faiths, to facilitate ministry to those of other faiths and to provide care for all service members, including those who claim no religious faith," Eileen Lainez, of the Department of Defense Press Office, wrote in an e-mail. "In these various roles, chaplains respect the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs." At Beth Israel, Shulman regularly attended Shabbat services. He and Lori welcomed fellow congregants to their home for dinner or lunch after services. He is similarly involved with the Jewish military personnel who visit the camp chapel at his base on the outskirts of Baghdad. "On Friday nights, I keep it simple," wrote Shulman, who is stationed with the Fourth Battalion of the Combat Aviation Brigade. "We go through the service to welcome Shabbat, as well as the evening service. Then we sit down to dinner. That's everyone's favorite part - really just hanging out with other Jews." Before Cutler could celebrate Shabbat services, he had to find a place to hold them. So he created a Jewish chapel in an annex of his camp chapel at Al Asad, a former Iraqi air base in the western province of Anbar. Civilian contractors from Sri Lanka built an ark from plywood. Synagogues sent banners to hang for holidays. "The amazing thing about this is that this is the first Jewish chapel that has been in Iraq in the past hundred years," he wrote. At the new chapel, the atmosphere seems vibrant, especially for Shabbat dinner. On the kosher menu: gefilte fish, chicken soup, humous and halla (the dining facility bakes two loaves each week). "We light candles, Kiddush, and sing songs, Birkat Hamazon," Cutler wrote. "We celebrate Shabbat in its truest sense." Shabbat evenings on American military bases in Iraq have an intimate quality. Shulman wrote that usually about 10 or 11 military personnel and civilians attend Shabbat services and dinner on Friday nights. Cutler wrote that "when I got here there were six identified Jews here and now there are 10." But the audience increases for several holidays, including Pessah. This may involve larger gatherings - Ehrenpreis anticipated that about 60 people would participate in the first Seder this year - or travel to accommodate more people in different locations, as is the case for Cutler during Pessah week. But most of a serviceman's or woman's time in Iraq is spent performing tasks under constant threat of danger. A principal part of a chaplain's role is spent helping people contemplate, not celebrate. Tolerance and teaching American Jews come from diverse backgrounds. Shulman's old congregation, Beth Israel, has welcomed Jews from both Mexico and the former USSR. Shulman sees similar diversity in the military personnel he meets. "There are all types of Jews coming from all levels of observance," Shulman wrote. "Russian immigrants from Brooklyn, others from Montana, yeshiva guys, JAG officers (military lawyers), Special Forces, doctors; all ranks, from private on up - I once had a two-star general come to services; converts, soldiers with Israeli parents, female Blackhawk pilots, civilian lawyers, State Department bureaucrats, newspaper reporters - even a Farsi interpreter once." The chaplains' mission and methods are inclusive, welcoming Jews from all streams and providing opportunities to learn more about their faith. Shulman's teaching includes a short talk in the middle of Friday night services and one weeknight of Halacha study with a soldier. "People are just too busy to give any more time than they do on Friday nights," he wrote. Cutler, though, has started offering basic classes in Hebrew and Judaism. He did this because most Jews he has encountered "have no or very limited background in Judaism," he wrote. "Interestingly, I have non-Jews taking these classes," he added. "I found that non-Jews are interested in learning more about Judaism. Judaism is sort of a mystery to most military personnel and there are a handful that want to learn more." Trying times in a tough land Shulman, Cutler and Ehrenpreis have a paradoxical goal: providing a measure of peace in wartime. They have established a framework of faith through Shabbat services, holiday celebrations and religious study, but wartime dangers are rarely distant. The Iraq War has claimed more than 4,000 American military fatalities since the US invaded Iraq in March 2003. Some parts of Iraq seem safer than others. Cutler wrote that "it is very quiet in this region in Iraq," while Ehrenpreis said that "we have incoming rockets landing in and around our camps, and IEDs and EFPs on the road," referring to improvised explosive devices and explosively formed penetrators. Jewish military personnel share additional difficulties. Ehrenpreis's colonel conceals his chaplain's religious identity; "he doesn't want that element on my dossier to be known," Ehrenpreis said. The gunner atop his vehicle in a convoy also is aware that he is carrying a rabbi. Earlier this year, an EFP fatally wounded an infantryman helping to protect Ehrenpreis's convoy. "There was a group that attempted to save the individual," Ehrenpreis said. "His leg was blown off... Eventually, he died. He was conscious during that period of time." The next week, the chaplain returned to the soldiers who had remained at the site of the explosion to do construction work. "I was traveling the same road and did a lot of davening along the way," he said. "It was scary." Ehrenpreis ministered to shaken soldiers. "I gathered them together for prayer and allowed them to express themselves in prayer," he said. "My job is listening, for the most part. You help them to process the experience... just to be able to talk about it, put words to it. Your input is not that important." Nevertheless, he said, "You put words to something deep. It's part of processing and healing, being able to talk to someone else. It happens to be the chaplain who does that." Uncertain future, steady faith Lori Shulman still welcomes congregants from Beth Israel to her house on Shabbat, and her husband keeps in touch through phone calls and the occasional Webcam. He returned for an 18-day visit last year, but the three-year commitment he verbally agreed to when he joined still stands. In the meantime, those back home must wait for their loved ones' arrival and stay in contact. And, Cutler wrote, recognition from the larger Jewish community in the US would help. "I am not sure that many American Jews realize that there are Jews in the military," he wrote. "I know that at my synagogue and some other synagogues that I have been in touch with they will offer a misheberach for wounded American military personnel or recognize them during a Shabbat service, but I would imagine that the majority of congregations do not even recognize that there is a war. "No matter what one's politics are about the war the fact is that there are Jews serving here in Iraq and that there are still Americans [getting] killed and wounded. This alone should transcend the politics of the war. It is about people."