In the traditional reading of the Haggadah, the following text is heard at Passover seders: "Your ancestors dwelt on the other side of the river, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan."
On Passover this year, I ate meals with Marines, air navigators, sailors and soldiers in five different locations throughout western Iraq — Al Asad, Ar Ramadi, Al Taqqadum, Habiniyah and Camp Fallujah — only a few miles at any one given location from the "other side of the river," the Euphrates.
I conducted six seders with a 106 military personnel attending, both Jews and non-Jews. Being in a war zone, it was extremely difficult to bring all the Jewish personnel to one place to celebrate the first night of Passover, so I needed to be creative for Jews to have the opportunity to fully participate and celebrate. Therefore, it was easier and safer for me to fly out to the forward operating bases and to conduct a seder during the week of Passover than other alternatives.
On the first and second night, I was at my home base of Al Asad. On Tuesday night, I conducted a seder at Ar Ramadi, Wednesday night was Al Taqqadum, Thursday was Habiniyah, and Friday was Fallujah.
Even though it was not the night when seders are held, Jewish military personnel were happy to have the opportunity to celebrate the holiday. A medical officer at Habiniyah told me that he never missed a seder his entire life; he thought that this year would be the first. "But now, I can say, even being in Iraq, I never missed a seder. I have a 100 percent track record," he said.
And a Marine e-mailed me: "I wanted to thank you again for coming out and leading the seder. It was quite enjoyable, and I was glad that, while I missed out on doing it with my family, I was able to participate here in TQ (Al Taqqadum)."
All chaplains are assigned a Religious Program Specialist, or R.P., basically a chaplain's assistant whose job is to protect the chaplain, who are noncombatants and do not carry any weapons. The R.P. is trained as a combatant and also sets up for religious services for the chaplain's particular faith group.
My R.P. was born in Thailand and is a practicing Buddhist. He ordered the Passover food and supplies, sent them to the area bases, set up for each seder, and even heated up the matzah-ball soup and served the gefilte fish. In addition, he learned a few Yiddish words, as he told me that he was glad Passover was over so he "didn't have to schlep the supplies any longer."
The seders could not have taken place without the generous support from the Jewish Welfare Board, a dozen individuals and several organizations. We totaled 1,500 pounds of food and supplies. The outpouring was tremendous, and we were blessed to have generous individuals and organizations provide for us. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
Wonderfully, I met one of the Marines at the seder in TQ whose mother has been sending us Passover food through an organization she started called "Operation Support Our Troops."
Equally rewarding was that at each location, there were many non-Jews who had an opportunity to experience a seder for the first time. It became not only an educational experience, but an opportunity to foster ecumenism between Jews and non-Jews.
What occurred at each seder speaks loudly and clearly about what makes America a great nation. We are committed to the inherent value of not only respecting others' faith traditions, but ensuring that others can practice their religious observances and traditions.
Symbols of Freedom
In and of itself, it is astounding that the Passover seders were conducted here in Iraq, where we are engaged in the fight against tyranny. As Americans, we share the common value that the Haggadah aptly speaks about, and the "Pesach" (lamb sacrifice) and matzah and maror (bitter herbs) are symbolic expressions that represent freedom in all ages.
Translated into more modern terms, they are sacrifice, preparedness and hope. These are the essential elements in the battle for freedom, just as it was for the struggle for freedom in Egypt, and the challenge it represented to our forefathers is no less the challenge of our lives. It is an ever-recurring theme in history.
The power of this Passover is that we were physically where it all began with the Jewish people. To know that only a few miles away what we read in the Haggadah about the Euphrates River was very much real for us. The words become alive.
We know the physical environment where our ancestors Abraham and Sarah lived. Even though we are strangers in this land, we could sense the calling of God to Abraham: "Lech Lecha," or "go forth."
This Passover was a historical event, as well as other Passovers in previous years in Iraq. Though once the cultural and religious life of the Jewish world for 1,000 years, Iraq today has only a small and barely surviving Jewish community in Baghdad.
But where I visited, we celebrated Passover as a vibrant Jewish community, albeit one in the military.
Nevertheless, Passover once again returned to the land of Abraham and Goanim. And the message was clear and strong: It was the message of Passover — that of hope, that God continues to redeem each generation.
Commander Jon Cutler, USNR, is the rabbi of Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel in Warrington; he's currently serving as a naval chaplain in Iraq.