BLOG POST from Chaplain (CPT) Rabbi Dovid Becker on his deployment to the middle east.
בְּשֵׁם הַשֵּׁם אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִימִינִי מִיכָאֵל, וּמִשְּׂמֹאלִי גַּבְרִיאֵל, וּמִלְּפָנַי אוּרִיאֵל, וּמֵאֲחוֹרַי רְפָאֵל, וְעַל רֹאשִׁי וְעַל רֹאשִׁי שְׁכִינַת אֵ-ל.
“In the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, may Michael be at my right hand; Gabriel at my left; before me, Uriel; behind me, Raphael; and above my head the divine presence of God.”
On the 13 of August 2020 I deployed to the Middle East. My Devorah and our two sons, (Avi and Jack) dropped me off at Burbank Airport. Devorah and the kids walked me in with my 4 bags weighing in at a whopping 225 LBS of military gear and food. After check-in, the four of us took a booth in the airport’s only coffee shop/bar. I had nothing because my stomach was in knots, Devorah and the kids had Shirley Temples, their long time go-to cocktail.
What goes through a person’s head as they are about to leave the most adored people in the world? Many things occupied my mind. Where will I sleep? What if I’m hurt or worse, what conditions will I live in for the next half a year? Can I endure? Do I have the resiliency to overcome the countless obstacles that I will face? Kosher food or the lack thereof, irregular work hours that wreck your sleep patterns, and absolutely no days off… which is the norm for a deployment, flittered through my mind. And what about the never-ending stress that gnaws at a person! It is no wonder that military folk return from service abroad with PTSD. Sure, all of this was on my mind, but as I cried my goodbye to my family, all I could really say was sorry. Sorry that I was leaving Devorah, sorry that she would be an only parent for so long, sorry that I choose this career path, sorry that I was putting our family in jeopardy. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness, but not really for my sake…more for them. I wanted her to know that her pain was my pain. And then another thought occurred to me, the empathy I felt was the exact power source that I needed to overcome any challenge facing me. I was going away because I felt drawn to Jews who needed me, and I intend to return to my family because they need me too. Helping people who need me is just the way I am built. With this thought in mind and no less saddened, I peeled away from my family and made my way to the gate.
As I mentioned, when in the army you just do not know what is up around the bend. My plane stopped in Phoenix on the way to El Paso where I would be undergoing the dreaded Army premobilization training. More on that dread to come. In Phoenix, Devorah had arranged for our friends, Nashi and Chelsea Rosenberg, to bring me food. I had no idea what I was going to eat for dinner, and all of a sudden burgers, shawarma, and other foods appeared. The Bible tells us of Joseph’s selling. As he was handed over to a caravan the bible deviates from his tribulations to commit a few sentences to what the caravan was carrying. Apparently, they were hauling sweet smelling spices and other delectable items. Obviously, the question is… who cares what a caravan of camels was transporting? Thousands of trucks pass us on the road daily, do we ever really wonder what they are hauling? Why does the Bible care? Rashi (1040-1105) pours fuel on this question when he explains that it was unusual for these Arabic nomadic caravans to ship sweet smelling items, this freight outfitter simply was not in that business. Rashi informs us that this was a signpost along the way (aren’t they all?) deliberately orchestrated by G-d to provide Joseph with a level of comfort as he traveled into his new life. In other words, G-d was saying to Joseph “I’m here, don’t worry, it will work out” …. and indeed, it did. Similar to Joseph this food delivered from an unlikely source sent the same message to me. I understood from the get-go that Hashem Imadi, that He is with me.
I arrived in El Paso late that afternoon simultaneously as my fellow chaplain Rabbi Goldman. Rabbi Goldman will also be deploying to the middle east, albeit to a different theater of operation. Rabbi Goldman is the personification of a Soldier/Rabbi. Extremely fit, both spiritually and physically, he is an avid Talmud Chacham (a Torah scholar) who is fully engaged in Torah. Kosher food is very difficult to come by and Rabbi Goldman had brought a finite amount of foods for the both of us which unfortunately would run out shortly. From El Paso airport we took a taxi to nearby Ft Bliss. Ft Bliss is home to the CONUS Replacement Center (CRC) and is the Army’s only station for individuals augmenting to deployment. This is a dreaded but necessary stage of our deployment meant to weed out soldiers who might be unfit to deploy. As you might have seen in popular movies, this is the place where you spend long days being medically poked at, stuck with needles, turned over in Humvee roll-over training, sit through endless briefs, and marched all over the place… and this is during normal times! In the current COVID environment, there is a mandatory 2-week quarantine period where we were secluded and locked down to our compound… unable to leave to purchase food from stores, or visit the gyms, or even conduct meaningful PT. Upon arriving we were delighted to find that Jewish Friends of the American Military (JFAM) had sent many boxes of shelf stable meals and other items. In addition, my Rabbi Joel Weinberger and my friends at the STAR K also made sure we had food. Despite the hardships, Rabbi Goldman and I conscientiously surrendered to the experience. We spent our time fortifying ourselves spiritually, we learned Torah together, on Shabbat we had Jewish Services for a few of our fellow Jewish service members stuck with in quarantine, we sang Niggunim, we ate what we had, we celebrated Shabbat, we awoke every day to pray Vasikin (early, very early) together. Kabbalat Shabbat at CRC with Rabbi Goldman will always stick with me; our combined davening was deeply inspiring. Friends, despite the hardships that are inherent in serving in the US Military, like everything else, it is what you make of it. Ha’Shem Imachem. With this in mind, hardship becomes… less.
After 2 weeks at CRC behind a gate, we were released. Let me tell you something great about the Army. The institution recognizes that we are Rabbis. On Friday, while everyone else get loaded onto CRC Rotators (Military Charter Planes) to wherever they were headed, the Army held us back until Sunday to catch a Rotator leaving out of Baltimore Airport so that we would not have to travel on Shabbat. While this is a sensitive and kind thing to do, the downside is that we had to fly from El Paso to Houston at 0600 and then connect to Baltimore. Rotators do not leave at normal hours, ours was scheduled to depart Baltimore at 0400 and with a stop in Germany, then continue to Turkey, and then onto Kuwait. Each stop was around 3 hours long, so you can imagine, this was a very long day indeed. Yet again, Hashem showed up… Rabbi Goldman and I were famished by time we got to Baltimore. Thankfully, Rabbi Goldman has a sister living in nearby Silver Springs and she brought us some delicious sandwiches. My Devorah worked her magic and our close friends the Bergers’ showed up with a full dinner for Rabbi Goldman and me. Hashem Imadi.
At around 0400 we were loaded onto the plane. It was not a full flight, and B’H Rabbi Goldberg each got our own row of 4 seats and after takeoff, I slept pretty much the entire ride to Ramstein AFB. I did wake to enjoy our pre-ordered Kosher meal. We had checked over and over with the airline who confirmed that we would receive the meal. Apologetically, the flight attendants informed us that they had no meal for us. When we arrived in Germany, Ha’Shem showed! He sent Chaplain Sarah Schechter, a Jewish Airforce Chaplain to meet us with the most delicious meals. She even brought us the freshest Madjool dates, figs, chumus and other treats. I had never had a date or fig like this. There is not a huge tradition in my family for eating dates and figs.. but let me tell you these were very special foods. They tasted like candy, soft and deeply sweet. I made a reverent Brocha and a Shechiyanu because Hashem Imadi!
Many hours later, we landed in Kuwait with adrenalin coursing though our veins. Upon deplaning we were loaded onto a minibus. The air temperature was a whopping 120F. Unfazed by any hardship, we were about to start the mission! Recall that I mentioned above that when serving in the Army, one must be prepared to accept and align to new realities. On the bus we learned that we were being taken to a remote site for another 2 weeks quarantine. As a result of the Army flying us on a “dirty” plane to Baltimore, our CRC quarantine was broken. This was a major inconvenience as I have many tasks to complete before I can serve as a rabbi to my soldiers, frustrated as we were, we both just surrendered to this new reality. At the new quarantine site, we learned that they were not expecting rabbis… hence no kosher food, MREs or anything else. Under normal circumstances we would just go to the dining facility (DFAC) and get some supplemental foods… but as we were now to undergo a new lock-down in a tent city equipped with outdoor commodes and prepackaged meals from the central DFAC, we would have no options for food.
I want to pause here for a moment. Much of this brief has relayed situations that involved food. I fear that I may have conveyed a sense of gluttony. Make no mistake, an army runs on its stomach. If we have no food, we cannot survive. As chaplain rabbis, we rely on this fuel to feed our bodies as well as our souls. Meals and snacks become deeply religious moments of Ha’karat Ha’tov to Ha’Shem and for those who fed us. Brachot (blessings) become way more impassioned, and Benching (Grace after meal blessings) activate our souls… for who knows when and where the next meal will come from. We tend to encounter situations where we truly scrape from the bottom of the barrel, food becomes really imptortant.
Arriving at the quarantine site (PAD) was a bit like arriving on the moon. Tent after tent in rows lay before me. Searing heat, unreliable AC, outdoor commodes, shower trailers, and otherwise no running water are the conditions we are living in. Again, Ha’Shem showed up. Each tent houses 40 ppl. The Captain commanding this particular PAD is Jewish. He pulled us aside and offered to house us in our own tent. As it turns out, each tent has a refrigerator. This commander arranged with the base chaplains to find Kosher MRE’s which he had transported from 2 hours away. He also put in special requests to the DFAC on our behalf for cereals, soymilk, fresh fruits and vegetables. Once again Rabbi Goldman and I dived into our learning, singing, davening and preparations for our coming months in the Army pulpit.
So here I sit, on the moon. My almost 4-week quarantine is set to end this coming Monday at which time the real Avodah (work) commences. Barring any other surprises, which are inevitable, I will be transported to my duty station to guide my multiple communities on bases throughout the Area of Operation (AO). I will encounter new faces, new situations, and new opportunities. I will experience peace, joy, love, fear, sadness, Ruach, excitement, wonder, service to others and danger. I want to leave you with the single most important message that I brought with me from California.
Remember that Hashem Imachem… G-D will be with you. He is in the kindness others do for you, and the signs along your route. He is strengthened in you by how you choose to view your reality and respond. He is where you choose to look for HIM.
Melech Rachamon, Racheim Aleinu, Tov Umeitiv Hidoresh Lannu, Shuv Alienu B’Hamon Rachamecha
Shana Tova, and more to follow, Chaplain (CPT) Rabbi Dovid Becker