Oasis in middle of Iraq
AL ASAD, Iraq — The prayers that Marine Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) Jon Cutler said over the meal after Friday’s Shabbat service, under normal circumstances, would not be said in the synagogue.
"We would usually do this in our homes," said Cutler, who is with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. "But we’re our own family here."
Cutler said he became a military chaplain with the goal of serving isolated Jewish communities. And communities don’t come much more isolated than in western Iraq, where just over 100 Jewish servicemembers and government civilians are scattered in small groups at bases throughout the area. Despite being deployed in a country with more than 2,600 years of Jewish history, Cutler said, the Americans comprise what is perhaps the only functioning Jewish community in Iraq.
Cutler’s largest congregation is at Al Asad and has about 15 members. He said one of his goals as a rabbi in Iraq was to create a sense of community among Jews serving in the area.
One of the first things he did was create a working synagogue in January. It is in the annex of the Memorial Chapel at Al Asad Air Base. The synagogue was founded in January when Cutler brought a Torah — a handwritten scroll containing Jewish scripture — from San Diego.
Cutler said it’s the presence of the Torah and the ark — a wooden cabinet where the Torah is stored — that technically makes the room a synagogue. In addition to being a place for religious services, the synagogue hosts family-style meals and weekly Jewish-themed movie nights.
Members of the congregation say the synagogue has been an oasis for them as practitioners of a minority religion away from home.
"People would rather be home but we actually have a very tight Jewish community," said Navy Capt. Edward Mallow, Base Command Group. "That’s really the solution is having communities."
Cmdr. Lloyd Krapin, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 27, said in previous deployments he’d found very little to satisfy his religious needs.
"A lot of times base chaplains just don’t understand much about Judaism," Krapin said. "[In previous deployments] it was more difficult to observe the way we’d like to."
For others, the creation of the synagogue was a chance to get back in touch with their spiritual side.
"There was nothing here for Jews in 2004 and 2005. Coming here and finding the synagogue was the best thing I’ve done here," said Staff Sgt. Randy Howes, 2nd Battalion, 153rd Infantry Regiment. "Coming here gave me the chance to get back in touch with Judaism."
In addition to trying to gain a sense of community, Jewish servicemembers gain a sense of history while serving in Iraq.
Prior to 1948 there were more than 150,000 Jews in Iraq, Cutler said, and the country is home to a wealth of Jewish history. Jewish legal code was written in what are now Haditha and Fallujah. Abraham was born in Tallil, and Jews who were forced out of Israel after a failed rebellion against the Roman Empire fled to western Iraq. "Because so much of the Bible events occurred in this area, a lot of us experience an epiphany," Mallow said. "We’re the end the line after 2,600 years. The responsibility of being the last Jewish synagogue is important."