April 29, 2005

Iraqi Pessah, GI-style (Gefilte-fish Included)

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

As nearly every Jewish homemaker knows, making Pesach is a significant challenge, from supplying the idiosyncratic requirements of the Seder to preparing meals without the basic staples of pasta, bread and rice.

Multiply that by 10, and that just may begin to describe the challenges confronted by Jim Lecollier, the non-Jewish US Defense Department officer charged with supplying some 400 Jewish US soldiers stationed overseas with everything they needed to observe the eight-day holiday in places with no access to kosher food-or, in some cases, running water, electricity or basic security.

Thanks to Lecollier's efforts and the US army's dollars, this year was the first time Jewish GIs from Balad, Iraq to the DMZ on the Korean peninsula received kosher-for-Passover US military rations.

"We've been working on this for over a year. This is the first time we've ever done it," Lecollier said. "This is designed for people that don't have alternatives. You sit in the middle of a camp in Afghanistan or wherever, and you can't go to the local grocery store."

In previous years, organizations like the Florida-based Aleph Institute sent soldiers kosher-for-Passover food, and the military sent them ready-made Seder kits, part of the army's commitment to the ecclesiastical needs of its soldiers. But soon after last Passover some military chaplains approached the Defense Dept. supply center in Philadelphia and asked if the army could do more for its soldiers for Passover than send them kits with freeze-dried shankbones.

That meant not only an additional expense for the army, it also meant Lecollier had to learn more about Jewish rabbinic law than he had ever imagined possible, and more than most Jews know.

"The idea of making something is very difficult because the utensils have to be kosher as well," Locollier explained. "And then you have to make sure that what you're buying is going to be certified by the widest population, because there are some rabbis that certify things as kosher, but other religious factions within the Jewish faith that wouldn't eat it."

After canvassing the field in an attempt to determine how much food was needed, the military came up with an estimate of 400 soldiers, accounting for the fact that many Jewish GIs would be home for the holidays or in places where they could get kosher food on their own, such as Europe or the United States.

Each soldier requesting Passover food was sent two cases containing a total of 24 meals, 16 of them beef stew and the remaining eight canned salmon.

"They wanted an MRE-like meal, but we had to compromise because of the matza situation," Lecollier explained.

All but 116 of the rations went to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The army's efforts freed up some of the resources of the Aleph Institute, which sent Jewish GIs handmade shmura matzas, macaroons, chocolates and how-to Passover videos, among other things, to supplement their US army-issued Seder kits.

"It's very, very meaningful for people, especially when they're protecting American freedom," said Aleph's Leah Sherman. "When they suddenly find themselves out at an army base where they can't even shower for 18 days and suddenly they are presented with something Jewish, there's nothing that can touch lives more."

"Sometimes people turn around and reconnect to Judaism in a very meaningful, rich way," she said. "It catches them right in the heart; it touches them when they're completely vulnerable."

Rabbi Brett Oxman is a US Air Force chaplain serving in Seoul, South Korea. He says the military grants special furloughs for GIs who want to attend a Seder, sending them for a couple of days to stay at the US army religious retreat center. Not all who want to come are able to make it-some are sent Seder kits instead-but those who do sometimes stay for hours at his Seder, which is conducted both in Hebrew and English.

"We do everything just like in New York, but we have many people who stand guard watching the North Koreans and cannot attend," Oxman wrote in an e-mail. "I sent out 50 'solo Seder kits' for those who cannot come to our program in Seoul."

Chaplain Shmuel Felzenberg spent last Passover in Iraq, near Balad, where he led a Seder in a desert tent at Anaconda, the US army's largest installation in Iraq. About 20 people attended each Seder, including Jewish US State Department employees and Defense Department civilian contractors in Iraq.

"I was very pleasantly shocked," said Felzenberg, who spent this year's holiday at his home in Hawaii. "Most of the focus at the Seder was on our current mission and trying to relate the whole concept of the Exodus and freedom to our role in Iraq."

"I remember someone almost coming to tears because they hadn't had gefilte fish in years," Felzenberg said. "Some of the people I think really got a chance to reflect on where they were."