Shavuot Feature Jewish Soldiers in Uncle Sam’s Army Receive Holiday Treats: a Bible and Food

U.S. Jewish soldiers are receiving two items that no Jew celebrating Shavuot can do without: a Bible and a cheesecake. The Jewish Chaplains Council is teaming up with the Jewish Publication Society to send 2,750 copies of the Book of Psalms and the Bible to Jewish soldiers serving in the Middle East and other countries.

“The traditional thing to do on Shavuot is to study,” says Miriam Rinn, the council’s communications manager.

Meanwhile, the Aleph Institute, a Florida-based organization that seeks to facilitate Jewish observance in the military, intends to bring a taste of the Jewish home to U.S. service personnel by sending out more than 1,000 portions of cheesecake for Shavuot. Jews traditionally eat dairy for the holiday, which begins the night of June 12.

The cheesecake will be “shelf-stable,” which means it won’t require refrigeration and can withstand the desert heat of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like most Jews around the world, U.S. Jewish soldiers are less likely to celebrate Shavuot than Passover or the High Holidays.

But the initiatives speak to the ongoing efforts of Jewish organizations to serve Jewish soldiers stationed in military bases throughout the world, especially in Iraq, where there are an estimated 1,500 U.S. Jewish soldiers.

“We are a resource for any Jewish soldier who needs anything Jewish,” says Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of the Aleph Institute.

To that end, says Katz, the institute regularly sends prayer books, Bibles, tefillin and other Jewish materials to Jewish soldiers.

While the organization doesn’t station personnel in combat situations, it maintains regular contacts with chaplains and field commanders throughout the world, who inform Jewish soldiers about the institute’s services.

Chaplain Col. Ira Kronenberg recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he conducted Passover seders for Jewish soldiers in Bagram. About 15 soldiers attended, he says.

“The army provided a Passover kit: matzahs, Hagaddahs, grape juice,” Kronenberg says. “The Aleph Institute sent shmurah matzahs.”

“I’ve been in the army for 30 years,” he added. “The army’s very good” about accommodating religious needs.

For example, the army prepares special kosher versions of ready-to-eat meals, the staple for soldiers in the field.

Jewish holidays often provide a welcome opportunity for religious soldiers to take a break from the rigors of army life and reconnect with their heritage, Kronenberg says.

He says the appeal of Jewish services, on all holidays, generally defies denominational boundaries, attracting soldiers of all levels of religious observance.

“We get the whole gamut of soldiers,” he says.

Kronenberg recalls one soldier in Afghanistan who attended every religious service Kronenberg held, and regularly asked the rabbi questions about Judaism.

Before Kronenberg left, the soldier asked him to call his parents to tell them he was OK. When Kronenberg did so a few days later, he mentioned how impressed he was by the soldier’s Jewish commitment.

“That’s funny; he never attended any services here,” the parents said.

Chaplain Shmuel Felzenberg echoes Kronenberg’s sentiments. Felzenberg, a captain, concluded an 11-month deployment to Iraq last January, where he was assigned to an army base near Balad, a city some 70 miles north of Baghdad.

“The vast majority of soldiers increase their attendance and observance” in the military, Felzenberg says. “When you’re in the field, you feel more than ever before your own mortality.”

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