Holy days draw a crowd for U.S. rabbi’s services in Baghdad
Most days, the only rabbi in Iraq is the one deployed there by the U.S. Army.
Capt. Andrew Shulman usually leads services Friday evenings on Camp Stryker in Baghdad for about 10 people, followed by a kosher meal and fellowship.
“I live for Friday nights because we all get together,” Shulman said.
But at sundown on Sept. 12 — the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year — Shulman presided over a far larger gathering.
More than 50 Jewish military members arrived for Rosh Hashana services marking the beginning of the 10-day period called the High Holy Days.
“They came from all over Iraq — Camp Victory, Slayer, Stryker, Falcon, Mahmudiyah, COP Apache, FOB Kalsu and Anaconda,” Shulman said. “We had a full-bird colonel, a sergeant major, a B-1 bomber pilot, Navy, Air Force, U.S. State Department, Wall Street Journal reporter, you name it.”
If they were on the Camp Victory complex, of which Stryker is a part, they drove to services. If they came from elsewhere, they arrived by helicopter, he said.
“I served 123 meals. All with a pot on a one-burner electric stove and no running water.”
The holy days end Saturday on what some say is the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar — Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Shulman, reached at Camp Stryker by phone earlier this week, said he expected perhaps 50 troops for Yom Kippur services.
Observing the holy days in a primarily Christian military, in a city where, Shulman said, only nine Iraqi Jews remain — down from 100,000 before the formation of Israel and from 35 remaining in 2003 — in a largely anti-Semitic part of the world — has been “very surreal.”
“We are in the Army. It’s kind of an American city,” Shulman said of the base. “But some of these guys came from these little patrol bases (where they have more interactions with Iraqis). They tell me they’re very uncomfortable wearing their yarmulkes or praying.”
Rosh Hashana begins with the blowing of a ram’s horn, called a shofar.
“In a nutshell, it’s like an alarm clock for the soul,” Shulman said. “It’s like a raw scream. It tells us to wake up from our slumber and get back on the right path.”
A private first class blew the shofar, which belongs to Shulman.
Yom Kippur, 10 days later, is a day of prayers, fasting and thoughts of repentance, Shulman said.
“It wipes the slate clean. It cleanses the stained garment that is our souls.”
At sundown Saturday, the period of reflection and repentance ends.
“Then you can eat again and, hopefully, go back to a new year rejuvenated and cleansed,” Shulman said.
For Rosh Hashana, two other rabbi chaplains were flown into Iraq for services held in the Green Zone and Al Asad Air Base, Shulman said.