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Crisis in Iraq Virtual Community Links Jews in the Military, and Their Families

March 19, 2003
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One note came from Major Jonas Vogelhut, who has been leading Shabbat services at a U.S. Army base in Kuwait.

Vogelhut has been searching for a Jewish chaplain for Camp Doha, so services would continue “if we head north by order of the president.”

Another message came from a San Diego mother of three young children whose husband is a Jewish chaplain with the First Marine Expeditionary Force “somewhere near Iraq.”

The woman wondered “how other families are helping their children through the deployment.”

One father, whose son is a medic stationed in South Korea, said he spent Purim flying in a Chinook helicopter, taking target practice and recalling a recent Shabbat service at a base in Seoul “nibbling on store-bought challah and sipping Manischewitz.”

For Debbie Astor, executive director of Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass., these stories herald the birth of a new kind of “community” for Jews in the armed forces and their families.

The messages were posted to The Brave, a kind of Web-based bulletin board called a list-serve that was launched last month. It is believed to be the first devoted to Jews in the military.

Hosted on the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Web servers, The Brave, at, was Astor’s brainchild, and for good reason.

Her 28-year-old son, a Marine lieutenant, shipped out from Camp Pendleton, Calif., recently and arrived in northern Kuwait the end of last month. Like in so many other wars, soldiers there must rely on snail mail to connect with the world.

“In a society where we assume we should have instant access to anybody we want to talk to, it’s very stressful,” Astor said.

Astor came up with the idea for The Brave when she remembered that a rabbi in California had a son who was also a soldier, and she contacted him.

“I said, ‘If you’re going to say goodbye to your son, will you hug mine for me?’ ” she said.

“Then I realized how terrific it was to have somebody to talk to about the kind of challenges parents and spouses of people in military service” face, she said.

There are more Jews in the armed forces than one might think. Estimates range from 5,000 to 8,000, though Astor said Jews are 1.5 percent of the 1.5 million soldiers on active duty, or some 22,500.

She hopes The Brave will also spur efforts toward a more long-term support system for military Jews, a kind of digital form of outreach.

These Jews need one another, members add, since there are only 24 Jewish chaplains stationed around the world, and only seven are “in theater,” or in the war zone, Astor added.

One religious leader who has joined the list is Rabbi Maurice Kaprow, Deputy Fleet Chaplain for the Sixth Fleet, who e-mailed JTA Tuesday from aboard ship in the Mediterranean.

Kaprow, who lauded The Brave as an “important tool” to connect military Jews, said the world needs to know that Jews exist in the military “365 days a year,” not just in time of war.

“I would like to see the day come when the American Jewish community remembers us continually,” he wrote.

Already The Brave has gained 155 subscribers. Many packed the site with postings on one recent day.

Many of the messages concern practical questions, such as how to send Passover care packages to South Korea or how to deal with car insurance for someone in the armed forces.

But like any Jewish community, The Brave has its share of debate.

When one anti-war critic posted a message, a Jewish soldier stationed abroad shot back:

“I care about not dying risking my neck so that you can continue to complain and badmouth my country,” the soldier wrote. “Remember, lashon hara,” or gossip, “is one of the greatest sins in Judaism, and you’re committing it.”

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, of Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles, is another devotee of The Brave. He was the rabbi Astor contacted because his son Kayitz, 21, is a corporal with the First Marine Expeditionary Force in Kuwait.

Finley partly reads The Brave to see if he can help those like Astor who are new to war. Finley himself was a Marine from 1973 to 1976.

“It’s a tense time,” Finley said.

Though Kayitz no longer has e-mail access, the rabbi on Monday received his son’s first letter — dated Feb. 28, the day his battalion landed in Kuwait.

“We got spoiled by e-mail, definitely,” he said.

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