For a country that prides itself on its separation of Church and State, the United States makes an unusual exception in matters relating to the military. Here the government takes an interest in soldiers’ religious commitments, providing them with chaplains of every religion and denomination, and actively encouraging religious involvement among its troops. According to Chaplain Brett Oxman, currently posted at the McChord Airforce Base in Washington State, the government believes that religiously affiliated soldiers are more apt to be decent, moral human beings, traits that are particularly important in a military setting.
But maintaining religious observances, even for those already affiliated, isn’t easy in places like Afghanistan, or North Korea. And although the U.S. army recently began providing Jewish soldiers with kosher meals, the military atmosphere isn’t particularly conducive to holiday celebration. That, says Oxman, is where Aleph Institute comes in.
Last week some 20 volunteer yeshiva students spent three consecutive days in a Rahway warehouse packaging 1,400 Passover kits, including Haggadahs, Matzot, and festive foods. The packages were shipped to soldiers in the Quatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, among other places. “The orders have literally tripled since last year, in the wake of the current conflict,” says Rabbi Mendy Katz, director of Aleph’s military programs.
A not-for-profit organization founded in 1981 by Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar, under the directive of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Aleph sees as its mission addressing the pressing religious, educational, humanitarian, and advocacy needs of individuals in institutional settings. Its military wing is devoted to providing thousands of Jewish men and women serving in the United States Armed Forces with Jewish books, material, and moral and spiritual support.
“While soldiers are involved with the harsh realities of war, it is especially important that they maintain G-d as a central part of their lives,” says Rabbi Lipskar. “It is important that they realize that every Jewish act, every mitzvah, brings G-d into their lives and provides them with special protection.”
According to Chaplain Oxman, “Aleph’s significant contribution is their distribution of quality materials in a very timely manner, and without asking for pay.” When Chaplain Oxman was posted in Afghanistan earlier this year, a Lutheran chaplain had asked him about procuring Passover provisions for Jewish soldiers. “I immediately directed him to Aleph, whom he contacted,” and Passover parcels are already on their way to Afghanistan.
The Passover kits will reach Jewish soldiers in time so that they can celebrate the Seder Passover eve, on April 16. Each kit includes a Seder “manual” that guides one through all the steps and rituals of the Seder, with explanations, as well as an English Hagaddah.
Jewish observance provides soldiers with a strong feeling of camaraderie, so important in the military, and spiritual involvement creates an identity that is often hard to establish in an institutional setting. Celebrating Jewish traditions becomes “a means of connecting with something outside of war, pain, and loss, something redeeming and very uplifting,” says Lipskar. And while this is not about long-term results, but about addressing very immediate spiritual and emotional needs in a practical way, the impact of a Passover celebration in Iraq could well have far-reaching effects.