Jewish Soldiers in Iraq Celebrate Holidays in Saddam’s Former Palace

When Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson blew the shofar this past Rosh Hashanah, it reverberated throughout one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces.

More than 100 Jewish members of the U.S. forces stationed in Iraq attended the High Holiday services at the former Iraqi dictator’s Baghdad compound.

They seemed shocked and awed, not least by the echo.

“It was a 25-foot ceiling, so it really goes,” Ackerson said, describing the shofar’s blast in a telephone interview from Baghdad on Monday.

Many of the young Jews also “kept looking at all the marble, the gold, the fancy chairs,” the rabbi said. “It was rather magnificent.”

Then under a late afternoon sun, the group performed the customary Tashlich ceremony outside the palace, casting pieces of bread representing sins into a private lake once owned by the Iraqi dictator’s sons, Uday and Qusay.

“It was a gorgeous setting,” said Ackerson, who is from Baltimore. “It tells me we can actually put these places to good use.”

For Jews serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the High Holidays began on a sweetly ironic note: They made history by celebrating a new year in unusually elegant fashion, in the heart of Saddam’s turf, which now serves as a U.S. military base.

As the senior rabbinic chaplain for the U.S. operation in Iraq, Ackerson said he wanted this High Holiday season to start with a spiritual bang for the estimated 500 Jews among the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait.

It seems to have worked.

“One sergeant told me it was the most meaningful Rosh Hashanah he’s had in 20 years,” Ackerson said of the palace services.

There were also services for Jewish service personnel in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, which drew some 50 people, and two services in Kuwait, where U.S. forces also are stationed.

American donors enhanced the holiday celebrations for the Jews serving in the Gulf.

Four American synagogues — three from New York, one from Maryland — donated four Torah scrolls, each insured for $10,000, for the holiday events, which will include Yom Kippur and Sukkot services.

The Torahs capped a months-long civilian grass-roots effort dubbed “Operation Apples and Honey” by the Jewish Educators Network of New York.

The group also sent 1,200 kosher dinners and 800 bagel-and-lox lunches to the troops to complement their usual ready-to-eat meals, along with prayer books, books on Judaism and ritual objects such as kiddush cups.

Meredith Weiss, president of the Jewish Educators Network, said she decided to organize the aid effort after corresponding by e-mail with a Jewish Marine and was shocked to discover how many Jews serve in the U.S. armed forces.

“I decided that we need to take care of them,” said Weiss, of Nanuet, N.Y.

Armed with the blessings of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council, which oversees the military’s rabbinic chaplaincy, Weiss began corresponding with Jewish troops, chaplains, U.S. pulpit rabbis and others.

One key request kept surfacing: real Torahs rather than the standard-issue paper version.

“We had real sifrei Torah to use, and that had a tremendous impact on the soldiers,” Ackerson said, using the Hebrew term for Torah scrolls.

“Many had never seen a real Torah scroll and they couldn’t believe people would ship Torahs to Iraq for them to use.”

After the Baghdad service, Ackerson said one soldier “asked me to send a note to his mother, saying he went to Baghdad for Rosh Hashanah — and he had an aliyah,” the honor of being called up to recite the blessing before the Torah reading.

Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, chief chaplain of the New York National Guard, carried one of the Torahs along with Sukkot supplies with him to Kuwait, where he led services at Central Command in Doha, Qatar.

Other military chaplains leading services during the High Holidays include Rabbis Carlos Huerta, a former West Point chaplain, and David Goldstrom, based in Fort Hood, Texas.

Others pitched in. A Chabad center in Millburn, N.J., donated candlesticks and Stars of David chains. Children from an Orthodox synagogue in Palm Beach,. Fla., sent cards and Sukkah decorations.

“No one said no to me,” Weiss said.

Maj. David Rosner, a U.S. Marine who served in the first Gulf War in addition to the current conflict, said Jewish troops deeply appreciate such efforts.

Rosner, whose tour of duty ended in time for him to make it home for Rosh Hashanah, remembers attending Passover seders in Kuwait in April, which featured “the bare minimum of supplies: matzah, gefilte fish, and tuna fish.”

He called Weiss “a mitzvah meidele.”

When the Jewish troops weren’t attending discussion groups and reading books such as “The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Survival Kit,” Ackerson said they slept relatively comfortably in Saddam’s former house.

But not all Jewish armed personnel made it to the holiday services.

One Jewish GI who had planned to attend the Baghdad service on Rosh Hashanah was Spc. Matthew Boyer, 24, a member of the field artillery unit of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, 3rd Brigade, which is guarding oil fields north of the city.

But Boyer — who participated in the mission that hunted down Uday and Qusay — was called to a special mission instead. During that mission, a friend was fatally shot in the neck.

“Other than give him CPR and try to save him, there was nothing he could do,” his mother, Judy Ledger of Atlanta, told JTA. “He’s pretty distraught.”

Ledger said her son, who managed to attend a recent Shabbat service by hitching a helicopter ride from his position, was unable to divulge many details of the raid on Saddam’s sons.

“He was driving a Humvee, trying to duck low, with attack helicopters overhead and shooting all over the place,” she said. “He said he was never so terrified in his life.”

Others Jewish servicemen were able to come home, at least briefly, for the High Holidays.

Kayitz Finley, 21, a marine corporal from Los Angeles, is at home on 30 days’ leave.

The son of ex-Marine Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles, the young Finley said he has encountered all kinds of hostilities in Iraq.

In his first of many firefights during the war, Finley recalled lying in a ditch and watching a rocket-propelled grenade fly over his head “so close you could see the engravings on it. But I wiped away all the fear, picked up my rifle and just went to work.”

After the war, Finley was stationed in Hilal, 40 miles south of Baghdad, where he helped train police, repair basic services and visit schools.

Generally Iraqis welcomed the U.S. forces, he said, and he made a point of telling many of them he was a Jew who “put my life on the line to free their country.”

Typically, he said, that declaration met a “sour” reception, with many Iraqis blanching and walking away or asking him to leave a house where he had been welcomed moments before.

Finley, who last April had held an impromptu seder in the former Iraqi secret police headquarters in Baghdad, said he asked one 35-year-old school teacher how he felt about Jews before divulging his identity. The teacher told him that the Koran taught him to kill Jews.

“So I showed him my dog tags,” which identified him as Jewish, “and said, ‘Here’s my knife, do your mission, kill me!’ I was ready,” Finley said, “but he couldn’t.”

Finley told the teacher that life is too short for such bigotry, before the man walked away. The teacher returned the next day, Finley said, and told the Jewish soldier “life’s too short to hate.”

“I felt at least I could change one life,” Finley said. “It was ironic, you know?”

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