War in Iraq Seder Comes Second to Angst for Military Families Trying to Cope

Rabbi Mordechai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles has devised a strategy to help his two young daughters cope with having their big brother Kayitz fighting in Iraq.

Kayitz, 21, is a corporal with a front-line combat unit, the 1st Battalion of the 4th U.S. Marines Division, which has already waged bloody battles against Iraqi units in Nasiriya south of Baghdad.

Besides limiting the TV viewing of his girls, ages 5 and 9, he says, “I tell them, ‘I’ll let you know when it’s time to worry.’

“When there’s been a big battle, I tell them the next day, ‘It was time to worry, but I forgot to tell you, so now you don’t have to worry.’ “

And so each day goes for the Finleys and thousands of American families like them, who desperately hope to learn something about the fate of their loved ones, and try somehow to deal with knowing very little.

Kayitz is one of some 1,000 Jewish men and woman serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

These individuals represent a fraction of the estimated 20,000 Jews among the 1.5 million-person U.S. armed forces.

In many ways, the angst of Jewish families is indistinguishable from that of all families with loved ones serving in the armed services.

Jewish families are finding that the war is hitting home spiritually as well.

And then, of course, there’s the approaching holiday of Passover, which begins April 16.

The Finleys usually host 30 to 40 people at their home for Passover, but this year, the rabbi says, “I haven’t decided what we’ll do yet.”

One thing he knows. With Kayitz in Iraq, he says, “his being there and fighting for freedom is really a family theme” for the seder.

For her part, Judy Ledger of Atlanta is also sure about one thing.

“We’re not doing seder — I just can’t see doing it without them,” she says, referring to her son and daughter and their fiances, all of whom serve in the military.

Ledger spends much of her time worrying.

“It takes up a lot of my time,” she says.

Her son, Matthew Boyer, 24, is a field artillery specialist with the 101st Airborne, 3rd Brigade, and is now in Iraq. His fiancee is a chemical and biological trainer with another unit of the 101st Airborne in Kuwait.

Ledger’s daughter, Ilana Boyer, 21, a army medic, remains stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., but Ilana’s fianc is with the 82nd Airborne in Kuwait.

Not only does she worry about her son’s safety, but the images of allied POWs in Iraqi hands has not escaped her Jewish radar.

When Matthew was inducted, he originally did not list any religion on his dog tag, but before going to Iraq, he changed the listing to Jewish.

“I yelled at him — it’s bad enough you’re in a dangerous position, but I felt that was even worse,” she recalls. “But he said that if he dies, he does not want a priest standing over him.”

Trying to glean information about their loved ones is excruciating for these families.

Ledger was buoyed late last week by a “cute” postcard she received from her son, just a few lines scrawled on a torn piece of cardboard.

In a way, Finley is lucky: He discovered that a reporter with the Richmond Times-Dispatch is embedded with the 1st Battalion, and so he studies the paper’s Web dispatches daily to glean clues about Kayitz.

After every battle, Finley, himself an ex-Marine, braces for the possibility that within a few hours, army officials could arrive at his home with bad news.

“When there are battles in Nasiriya, I feel horrible. The two hours after a news flash are the most horrible,” he says.

Allan Rubin of Dallas has even less insight into his son’s condition. Every day, Rubin and his wife, Linda, send their son Daniel, 21, a postcard that includes the phrase, “another day, no word.”

That’s because they have not heard from Daniel since January, when he shipped out from Camp Pendleton, Calif., with the Light Armored Vehicle 1st Battalion of the 1st Marine Division, to Kuwait and points beyond.

“It’s a little hard,” Rubin says, his voice breaking. “He’s just a wonderful young man.”

Daniel, a mechanic and technician, is very likely near Basra in southern Iraq, from what Rubin has gleaned from news reports and an ABC News reporter who is embedded with what he thinks is his son’s unit.

All of these families have turned to The Brave, a listserv — kind of an e-mail bulletin board — that the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue is sponsoring to help Jewish military families connect.

Jewish military officials and their families sometimes have different perspectives on the war.

One member of The Brave listserv who has not yet been deployed is Philip, 40, a member of the army reserve in Massachusetts.

Philip fully supports the war’s aims and sees no small irony in that U.S. troops are battling Iraqi soldiers in a brigade with the name Nebuchadnezzer, the ruler of ancient Babylonia, part of modern-day Iraq.

For Philip, it’s all about Sept. 11.

“People had a choice of jumping out of that building or being incinerated,” he says. “Did we forget what we’re fighting for?”

Meanwhile, he still dreads leaving his wife and children behind.

“I don’t mind going — I mind leaving,” he says.

Unlike many whose kin are in the military, Becky O’Brien, of Lafayette, Colo., opposes the war.

Her husband, Chris, 37, who is not Jewish, is with the Air National Guard somewhere in the war theater.

To find solace, O’Brien attended a recent peace service at her synagogue, Congregation Har HaShem.

“Judaism teaches you to question God, your rabbi, it’s the rabbinic tradition. You can have one text and 30 interpretations,” she says. “You should be able to question the president.”

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