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With M-16s on Their Shoulders, Soldiers Mark Chanukah in Iraq

In some ways, this year’s Chanukah in Baghdad seemed just like Chanukah any other year.

Everyone gathered around the menorah outside. I spoke about the meaning of the holiday for us, in Baghdad today.

A few people laughed as I pointed out some of the parallels between the Maccabees of old fighting for their just cause and the work the United States is engaged in every day here in Iraq.

Just like my other Chanukahs in Iraq, I couldn’t help but notice that most of those gathered for the menorah lighting were well armed. Each was in uniform and carrying an M-16, M-4 or M-9, all with ammunition, ready for action if needed.

We said the blessings over the lights and sang together under the inky night sky.

People lingered over “Maoz Tsur,” singing “Rock of Ages” in English. Lighting took a while, as one soldier worked at getting a kerosene lantern filled with olive oil to light because kerosene wasn’t available. The clear flame burned brightly, and we each admired it before going inside for latkes, dreidels and more festivities.

I had spoken in part about the cause of religious freedom and how the values of pluralism in America mean that we, as soldiers, are allowed to practice our own religion even while fighting halfway around the world.

I also spoke of how our sages teach that even a small candle can push away a great deal of darkness. Each one of those soldiers gathered around the menorah is a candle, and it is the light of loving kindness that they can show each other, even in difficult circumstances, which will carry them through their deployment here. The light they bring into the world will make a difference wherever they are.

Inside the dining facility, everyone loaded up on latkes with applesauce and drank eggnog. Small groups formed around the tables, and we listened to music and talked.

One officer told me there was a $40,000 cash bounty on his head, as well as on those of everyone on his team. In order to keep the bounty from going higher, he tries not to advertise his Jewishness.

A young soldier told me proudly that he originally is from Israel and was only in Baghdad for a few days. Fortuitously he had seen the Chanukah flyers we had posted all over Camp Taji.

Another soldier told me how glad his mother was that a rabbi was in Baghdad now, even though he would be heading home in a month.

Others talked about the meaning Chanukah held for them or of memories from back home. Holiday cheer seemed to improve even the taste of the latkes.

After the evening’s program ended and the decorations were taken down, a small group stayed behind singing “I have a little dreidel.” Somehow, amid all the celebration, we had forgotten this Chanukah standard.

Before drifting off in twos or threes, many of those who came exchanged e-mail addresses, and we all promised to try and meet again before the end of the holiday.

Most Jewish soldiers spend their holidays on their own, with little around them to remind them of home or their Jewish identity.

The “local” paper, Stars and Stripes, carried a picture on the front page I had taken earlier in the day of the 12-foot menorah as it was being set up. Later, a soldier wrote to the paper from his remote outpost in Iraq to say how much it meant to be reminded of Chanukah.

The opportunity for Jewish soldiers to gather together, just as they might back home, is valued very highly here in this distant land.

A small community of Jews has been meeting here all year long thanks to the efforts of Capt. Stephen Schwab, who led a weekly Friday-night service and organized holiday gatherings with the help of a small group of regulars.

Schwab remarked that this Chanukah was the largest gathering of Jewish soldiers he had seen in his 14 months deployed.

While each of us can bring light into the world, the light we bring seems so much brighter when we can come together. For our group of soldiers serving at Camp Taji in Baghdad, the lights this Chanukah burn bright.

Rabbi David Goldstrom is a U.S. Army chaplain stationed in Iraq.

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