A blue-and-white flag soars proudly above Temple B’nai Sholom, a Reform congregation in Huntsville, Ala. It doesn’t bear the familiar Star of David and thick blue stripes of the Israeli flag. Instead, it serves to honor the dozen or so synagogue members currently stationed in places like Fallujah, Baghdad and Tikrit.
For Jewish residents in Huntsville, a town that oozes Southern military culture, the Blue Star Service Banner is a particularly loaded symbol.
“I would have as much trouble taking that down right now as removing the flag of Israel or the flag of the United States,” declared Jeffrey Ballon, B’nai Sholom’s rabbi. “That’s our kids over there.”
As the war in Iraq enters its fourth year, Jewish families with loved ones in the line of fire continue to look to the community for support.
The JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a group run by the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America that serves Jewish military chaplains, says some 600 Jewish men and women are serving in the Middle East.
Some of the soldiers’ families turn inward to cope, seeking solace from their immediate surroundings.
Sharon Kunitz, a second-year cantorial student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said she was flooded with support from classmates when her son, Brian Parker, 20, left for Iraq.
“People often ask me how he’s doing and what can be done,” said Kunitz, whose son is due back in April. “If I’m feeling a little weepy, they give me hugs.”
When built-in safety nets aren’t available, Jewish military families often create their own support networks.
The night before Debbie Astor’s son Ethan deployed to Iraq, she made an unlikely discovery: Another marine in her son’s unit was Jewish. What’s more, his father was a rabbi in Los Angeles.
“It became very clear to me the need to have someone to talk to, to understand the very unique situation families encounter,” said Astor, who serves as executive director of her congregation, Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass. “There needed to be some way for us to get together and communicate.”
Out of this grew The Brave, a listserv that acts as a shoulder for Jewish military families to lean on. In the three years since its founding, the listserv has grown to roughly 250 members, including active-duty chaplains, retired war veterans and anxious parents, siblings, friends and spouses across the country.
All military families face similar hardships and are prone to the same stresses, but Jewish families face additional concerns about how their loved ones will fare in the armed forces, Astor said.
Lynne Bergman of Tucson, whose husband has been stationed twice in the Middle East, agreed that there are “additional fears I carried having a Jewish husband in the Middle East.”
“Beyond the expected fears about injury and capture, those with Jewish loved ones overseas have an additional set of nightmares,” she said. “Will our loved ones be singled out for more harsh punishment if they are captured because they’re Jewish? Will they be made an example? Will they serve a political purpose to someone?”
Ballon, who serves as a reserve military chaplain, said there’s also a fish-out-of-water phenomenon.
“Because of the current evangelical atmosphere of the military itself, Jewish soldiers are often put under duress from overzealous commanders who want to rally the troops around their particular faith,” he said.
“If you’re not white-bread, red-white-and-blue evangelical, you’re something other than regular,” he continued. “It’s very difficult for non-Christians to succeed in an environment like that.”
On the ground, Jewish servicemen face logistical hurdles to religious observance, such as isolation and the distance from religious services.
Joe Kashnow, who served in Iraq in 2003-’04, said he used to wake up early to pray and would cram in study sessions before Shabbat. Still, the barriers proved formidable.
On Passover, “we were involved in straight combat, there was no time for anything at all,” he recalled. “But that’s the way the war went: No one had any time to themselves. It was simply, move all day and half the night, three hours sleep, and do it again the next day.”
Kashnow was sent home after being injured by an explosive device in September 2003, and he now runs the Jewish Soldiers Foundation, which provides kosher beef jerky, prayer books and Hebrew Bibles for Jewish servicemen and women overseas.
Such resources make it a bit easier for soldiers to practice their Judaism, but many still describe their religious experience as self-directed.
“Military work schedules do not lend themselves to individual flexibility,” said Jason Rubin, a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps. “This can make Shabbos and holiday observance more difficult, especially during initial training like boot camp.”
“This is not to say that we are unable to practice as we need to, just that it can be challenging at times,” continued Rubin, who directs an online community for Jewish soldiers called Jews in Green. “It usually takes some extra effort on the service member’s part to make things work out.”
Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson, a Baltimore-based chaplain who served more than a year in Iraq, agreed.
“Jewish life in a combat zone in many ways is what you make of it,” he said. “You’ve got to step up to the plate and say, ‘I want to be a lay leader, I want to run services.’ “
Helping their loved ones take this step may console the family members waiting back home.
One Passover, while her son celebrated a seder in the Middle East, Astor tested out a new recipe for Iraqi-style charoset.
Somehow, making the syrupy date charoset eased her anxieties.
“Being gone is the subject everyday. The fear is everyday,” Astor said. “But knowing that he was either going to find his way to a small or large Jewish gathering, or that he would create one for his battalion, I knew he was acting like a responsible Jewish adult.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.