At this time of year, Rabbi Jon Cutler would ordinarily be preparing to lead Chanukah services at Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel in Warrington. But this is no ordinary year.
Cutler, a military chaplain and commander with the Navy Reserves, is currently stationed in Iraq at Al-Asad Naval Air Base, in western Iraq's Anbar Province. Since January, he has served as a military chaplain for the base, a position he also held in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war.
The base houses Iraq's only functioning synagogue and has an unusual piece of equipment: a seven-foot electric menorah, built by civilian contractors. The base will host a public lighting on the first night of Chanukah, and Cutler said that he expects as many as 70 people to show up.
"We invited the entire base to come and participate in the lighting of the Chanukah menorah, which is outside. It's a great opportunity for people who have never seen Chanukah to come and experience this event," said Cutler by phone from Iraq.
Additionally, he said that a Chanukah party will take place on the last night of the holiday for all the Jewish personnel on the base. Also, during the week of Chanukah, the rabbi will travel to a number of different bases in the area, distributing Chanukah supplies like menorahs, candles, dreidels and gelt.
One of his main responsibilities, he said, is "to support the independent Jewish communities on [other] bases," including those in Ramadi, Baharia and elsewhere, and to function as a resource for Jewish personnel.
"I'd say, within this whole province, there's around 100 Jewish personnel," said Cutler.
While it's never easy to be away from home during any holiday, Cutler predicted that being absent during Chanukah would be easier than having missed the High Holidays, for example.
Those holidays "are much more powerful than Chanukah," he said. "It's a minor holiday, and, basically, at home, I would just light candles. But the High Holidays are much more profound, because of the meals and going to synagogue and reading the services. I found that a bit more difficult to be away."
While there's no substitute for home, Cutler said that American Jews have been doing a great deal to ease the burden for members of the armed services.
"You really feel connected to the American Jewish community, because, throughout the year, they've been sending lots of food and care packages — for Shabbat services and dinner, we've received salami and smoked salmon and challah."
Life in Iraq
Cutler saluted what he called the "Jewish grapevine" back home, which has provided supplies for the base — not just from the Philadelphia, but from Chicago, Los Angeles, even Beaumont, Texas.
The synagogue was built with help from the local Philadelphia Jewish community, including Cutler's home synagogue, and Adath Israel in Merion, which donated the tile floor.
About 15 people attend Cutler's Friday-night services and dinner each week at the synagogue, which includes an ark made by contractors on the base, a Torah, and prayerbooks and other accoutrements donated by U.S. Jews. Cutler also offers Saturday-evening Torah study and Thursday-night Jewish-themed movie screenings.
Though Cutler will leave early next year, the synagogue will remain functional.
"The lay leaders [on the base] will continue it, and any time we turn over and give it to the new Marine Corps unit … it's their job to keep it going," he said.
Iraq has a rich history as far as Judaism is concerned. While the nation was at one time home to as many as 150,000 Jews, there are now believed to be fewer than 10 left in the whole country, most of them elderly and living near Baghdad, according to Cutler.
Jews have had a presence in Iraq for nearly 2,600 years, and the Talmud was written in Fallujah, not far from the base.
"It's a real humbling experience" being here, and there's a "real sense of connectedness," he said.
Until this chaplain's demobilized, he said that he's among … well, if not family members, then something very close to it.
"I think the thing that's truly amazing about being here is that we have a very strong and committed Jewish community," he said. "These members actually become my family, and we all consider each other family."