For Chaplain Who Served in Iraq, Different Calculus of Peace and War

Military men typically take the measure of a battle in stark tallies of dead and injured men, miles between enemy positions, numbers of insurgent hold-outs and the like. But Cmdr. Irving Elson — a Conservative rabbi who for the first eight months of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and again for the High Holidays this fall, was the only Jewish chaplain serving with Marines in Iraq — uses a different battle calculus.

For Elson, 44, an affable man who keeps his graying hair neatly buzzed to about the same length as his mustache, the battle count looks something like this: five days of Rosh Hashanah. Six Passover seders in Baghdad. Seven Shabbat services in one night. Seventeen High Holiday services.

“In the military, especially in times of combat, you can’t say, ‘Well, Rosh Hashanah’s today so today we’re going to do Rosh Hashanah services,’ ” Elson told JTA earlier this month, just before addressing a group at Manhattan’s Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained in 1987.

“I did like five days of Rosh Hashanah. You’re in one place for ma’ariv and shacharit,” he said, using the Hebrew terms for the evening and morning prayer services, “and then you go to the next place, and then you go to the next place, and then you go to the next place, and Rosh Hashanah’s over but, hey, you still have another eight or nine places to go to.”

And that’s not eight or nine safe, comfortable synagogues. Elson led Yom Kippur services in Iraq under mortar fire; tripped over an M-50 machine gun while carrying a small Torah at the Al Asad air base; and was forced to bury 100 copies of the Scroll of Esther in the Kuwaiti desert when the books wouldn’t fit into his equipment-stuffed Humvee.

Still, he said, “These services were some of the most meaningful times in my life.”

Of 40,000 troops with the Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, Elson said, about 400 are Jews, spanning the spectrum of religious engagement from secular to Orthodox.

Many of the Jews he guided in Iraq were combat soldiers, coming to grips with their own mortality, said Elson, a Navy Chaplain who served in Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment.

“You’re dealing with a very young population, 18- to 21-year-olds,” he said. “Spiritually they’re at real formative years. That’s when they’re on their own for the first time and they’re getting to ask the big questions in life, and I get to be there as a rabbi saying, ‘Hey, this is what Judaism has to offer.’ It’s a great job.”

Elson doesn’t perform religious rites for non-Jewish soldiers, but he does provide spiritual succor and guidance for troops of any faith.

“We minister to our own, we provide for others and we care for all,” he said.

Rabbi Joseph Brodie, vice president for student affairs at JTS, said his former student is particularly well-suited for military chaplaincy.

“He’s got a very good ear to listen,” Brodie said. “I think he’s non-judgmental. He will service not just Jews of all stripes but people of all faiths. He’s committed to interfaith work.”

Military chaplaincy is a unique sort of rabbinate, said Rabbi Nathan Landman, deputy director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, the primary agency that recruits and serves military chaplains.

“One of the most fulfilling aspects is that most people in the American military come not from the large cities of great Jewish concentrations, but from more rural areas,” said Landman, who served as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force.

“A rabbi in uniform has an opportunity to create a positive attitude toward Jews among those who have never encountered them before, on a large scale,” he said.

Elson had just such an opportunity in Iraq.

Military chaplains do not carry weapons. Instead, they are assigned “chaplain’s assistants,” soldiers who shadow them constantly as bodyguards. Elson’s assistant was a southern Baptist.

“He said, ‘I recognize you’re one of God’s Chosen People, and I’m going to take care of you,’ ” Elson recalled. “And that he did.”

Shortly after the war began, after securing the Ramallah oil field in Iraq, Elson’s regiment fought its way through a gauntlet of Iraqi soldiers in the town of Nasariyah, taking heavy enemy fire and casualties.

When they finally emerged on the northern side of the city, they were ambushed by units of Iraq’s Special Republican Guards. An intense firefight erupted.

“It was there that, for the first of three times,” the chaplain’s assistant “literally covered me with his body and returned fire,” Elson said. “He was awarded the Navy Marine Corps bronze star for his bravery that day.

“When this firefight was all over and we had the chance to comfort the wounded and take care of our dead, I sat in the Humvee almost in a daze,” Elson said.

“I was scared and I was wet. It had rained and hailed all day and all night,” he continued. “For 24 hours there was hail, there was rain, there was a sandstorm. I actually remember going to my battalion commander and saying, ‘Look, we have the hail, the dust. If I see locusts I know we’re in real trouble.’ “

Now finishing his eighteenth year in the U.S. military, Elson was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his service in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Elson, who is married with three young children, also has served in Okinawa; Charleston, S.C.; Naples; Newport, R.I.; Albany; and at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He now is stationed in California.

As he addressed the JTS audience, the Marines with whom Elson served — “my guys,” he called them — were taking part in the battle for Falluja, a hotbed of the Iraqi insurgency.

It’s “horrible” sitting back in the United States wondering about the fate of his minions in the Marines, Elson said, but it has given him time to reflect on his Iraq experience.

“It’s changed me. It’s made me realize the wealth Judaism has and that, in almost any situation, there’s something that Judaism has to offer,” he said. “I felt very rabbi-ish in Iraq. Both this trip and the last trip, I felt that, my entire life, I was preparing for that. I was really honored to be able to go and serve with them. They’re my congregation. Great men and women.”

And Elson can now add one more figure to his unusual Iraqi battle mathematics: four months. That’s the amount of time remaining until “his guys” are scheduled to come home.

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