High Holy Days with the Military
by Samantha Hauptman
Rosh Hashana – The head of the year, a time to reflect on the past year and resolve to be more tolerant, more compassionate, and more observant for the year ahead. The new-year offers hope and opportunity. So, when Rabbi David Becker, who is involved in military chaplaincy through Pirchei Shoshanim, asked if we wanted to join him at camp Pendleton for the High Holy Days, I was certainly intrigued.
Rosh Hashana also involves worry about menus and new ways to prepare symbolic foods such as leeks. I shop, cook and clean, and then try to enter the Holiday stress-free with a smile and blessing for each of my children. So, while the idea of Rosh Hashana at a Marine Base sounded highly unconventional, Rabbi Becker was offering the opportunity to leave behind the drudgery of preparing for the holiday and a chance to interact with Jewish Marines, who in all likelihood had never experienced a traditional Orthodox service. Through Pirchei Shoshanim, approximately 60 Orthodox Jews were invited to Camp Pendleton to express our gratitude to the men and women who guarantee our freedom of religion by serving in the United Stated Military.
Each family invited to attend helped by shopping (think 50 Google Express bags in a living room), transporting food, setting up tables for 100 guests per meal, serving, cooking, cleaning, preparing shiurim, and leading prayer services. A “WhatsApp” was established for the women to coordinate preparing the symbolic foods. Behind the scene, Rabbi Becker raised significant funds so each family could stay at the base hotel, eat catered food, and enjoy the company of friends and new faces. Ironically, there was a great deal of preparation, however the mission was not an all-inclusive resort program.
The position of the Military Chaplain is to facilitate the religious practice of any believer of a Higher Being. The Head Chaplain at Camp Pendleton is a Southern Baptist Minister with an accompanying accent. His taste testing of gefilte fish did not go well; however, he was good hearted about the matter and still assured the room for services was reserved. I wonder what shofar blowing looked like to him as we supplicated silently with men and women separated by an array of potted foliage.
As the services ended on the first night and everybody made their way to the dining area, it was clear that I had miscalculated how long it would take to set a table for 100 guests. For future reference, it takes approximately one-hour. All symbolic foods from apples and honey to fish heads were provided for the meal. Newcomers to the traditions politely declined the fish heads. Jellyfish heads presented a welcome alternative. Everybody had the opportunity to make introductions as some of us rushed around to set the first course.
An expectant young woman with an elaborate head covering and small children in tow sat at my table. As the evening progressed, I learned that her husband was stationed at Camp LeJeune. After his time in North Carolina, he will be stationed in Australia for another significant amount of time. I must have sounded naïve when I asked if she would travel with him to Australia. The reply was, “No ma’am.” A quick calculation made me realize that she would give birth in the absence of her husband and continue to raise her family alone – a sacrifice I do not believe I could make.
Over the ensuing three days, stories emerged such as the one about the Cohen who decided to learn to read Hebrew just so that he could recite Birchat Kohanim. The radio officer, who took leave for three-days and sat with the Rabbis to learn Daf-Yomi. The Special Forces Marine, who could not believe that we were at Pendleton to offer him a traditional Rosh Hashana experience. The retired Colonel who said that although people may think of the Jewish Nation as weak, in his estimation we are in fact strong.
It is certainly difficult to maintain the resemblance of an Orthodox Jew in the military, where many soldiers find themselves without the requisite quorum of men for prayer. However, many of the soldiers who prayed with us committed to taking on something spiritual in the upcoming year.
What was originally offered as an opportunity to shine our light for others turned into a chance to fulfill the purpose of the month of Tishrei. To understand what it means to be a soldier in man’s army sharpens our focus of commitment to our Creator. When the Head Chaplain asked the Religious Personnel to pack up everything in the kitchen and transport it to the hotel, they simply took notes and accepted the mission. There was never “why?” or “not fair!” And so while it may not have been the typical Rosh Hashana, the soldiers who protect the weak against evil became part of our community and in that merit we hope to have been decreed a “Kesiva Vechasima Tovah.”
Samantha Hauptman, a veteran educator and administrator, is the proud mother of five from ages 17 down to 2. When she is not preparing class, grading papers, or writing, she can usually be found in the laundry room of her home in Los Angeles. Her blog ‘Unorthodox Orthodoxy’ can be found at www.s4samantha.wordpress.com