The U.S. Army took control of Al-Faw several years ago, but there’s still something surreal about the idea of a grand Chanukah celebration at Saddam Hussein’s palace. Yet that’s precisely what happened on the first night of Chanukah, when 70 troops celebrated around a 12-foot menorah in the palace. “We are celebrating the Festival of Lights in a place once occupied by a man who chose to extinguish light,” Lt. JG Laurie Zimmet told her comrades as she spoke to them about the meaning of the Jewish holiday.
The U.S. Navy reservist serving at Camp Victory was doing the work of Chabad, Chabad style. “I was taught by my Chabad rabbi to think big and pray big,” says Laurie, and when she had the idea to have a menorah lighting at Al-Faw, she determined to do something big. But how to get one of those supersized menorahs to Camp Victory?
With the help of the Garrison Company, Laurie got to engineers at KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, who asked her for a design. “I googled ‘chabad’ and ‘menorah’ and printed out photos and gave it to them,” she says. KBR told Laurie they’d be more than happy to build the menorah for the Jewish troops, and four days later, in time for the first night of Chanukah, they delivered a 12-foot menorah to Al-Faw.
But Lieutenant Zimmet wanted the whole Chanukah shebang, so together with her friends Moshe and Harris, she fried latkes—“we managed to get ingredients that all had a hechsher,” she says, making sure that the celebration would be in true Jewish form. Then she got the Hard Core Choral choir to perform Chanukah songs from sheet music. It was a first for many of the troops, among them some Iraqis and Christians who had no idea about Chanukah, and this Conejo Valley elementary school teacher was not going to squander the opportunity to illuminate. Laurie gave the soldiers some background and insight to the holiday, drawing parallels with the war the Jews fought back in ancient times, and the war America is fighting today. “Chanukah celebrates the victory of a war that was fought for freedom, not for land,” she said. “And that’s what we are fighting for here–for people to have the freedom to choose their own path.”
Laurie, who spoke with Lubavitch.com by phone earlier today while she was attending meetings in the Green Zone credits her inspiration to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Though she’s never met him she says she feels he’s reached her through his Shluchim, in her case, “Rabbi Moshe Bryski, who is a conduit for the Rebbe’s inspiration.”
A former public affairs director for Dennis Prager, Laurie’s been mobilized four months ago and expects to be in Iraq another nine months. While not a day passes that she and her comrades are not in the line of small arms enemy fire, Laurie says that she is “honored to serve our country and preserve our identity.”
And she wants folks back home to know that the “Jewish troops are being well taken care of by lay leaders and rabbis.”