Celebrating Chanukah in Baghdad

Elizabeth Robbins, on a tour of duty with the US military in Iraq, is also a Jewish lay leader. Here’s her account, on the Aish.com website, of the Chanukah celebrations in the Green Zone – all the more moving since it involved one of the remaining eight Jews of Baghdad. (With thanks: Sami)

“Celebrating Chanukah 2007 in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace, who would think? Yet tonight inside a marble encrusted hall in Baghdad, we lit the eighth light of a hand-made, 6-foot tall menorah. We prayed in Hebrew, joyfully sang a medley of Chanukah songs, ate latkes, and best of all, we were Jews together in the land of our earliest forefathers.

“The Jewish community at the US Embassy in Baghdad is growing and thriving to such an extent that we now reliably form a minyan. We call ourselves B’nai Baghdad — a diverse group of US and Coalition uniformed service members and civilians stationed in the International Zone (IZ), known colloquially as the “green zone,” an enclave in central Baghdad that houses Iraqi government officials, various embassies, military headquarters, and international aid organizations.

“The Republican Palace, now the temporary home of the US Embassy, is nestled in a scenic bend of the Tigris River, the view unfortunately hidden behind tall blast barriers. It is the largest of the palaces in the IZ and formerly housed the family of Saddam Hussein. But this year it houses our menorah!

“Soon after I arrived in Baghdad this past May, I earned the position of Jewish lay leader — a volunteer authorized to meet the needs when military chaplains are not available. In addition to my military job, with the help of new friends in the congregation, I began organizing services, coordinating with military chaplains, ordering supplies, and managing the community’s storage locker of prayer books, candles, leftover Passover foods, and even a few Purim groggers. This responsibility might seem a burden, but is truly a blessing; it anchors not only my week but my being.

“We meet in the multi-purpose chapel which is a large trailer near the Embassy surrounded by concrete blast walls. A sailor and I arrive early each Friday evening to drape tallits over the two podiums in the chapel. We set up Shabbat candles sent by loved ones, and break out bottles of Kedem wine and grape juice. We place a lovely wooden ark, hand-made by a congregant, on the bima. (…)

“It is challenging to be a practicing Jew in the military or the Foreign Service. But those of who have volunteered know that vibrant Jewish life and government service can coexist, albeit with challenges. The biggest problem is in the numbers, for on a remote post or installation it can be difficult to create a community. When I was briefly deployed to Kosovo, I was the only Jew to show up at services each week.

“But such challenges pale in comparison to those faced by our Jewish brethren in Iraq. In August of this year, a shy woman began occasionally to attend services, escorted into our secured area by a member of our congregation. She told us that she was one of the eight remaining Jews in Baghdad. Since she did not live in the International Zone, she calmly accepted the mortal risks entailed in joining us as conditions permitted. Even more sobering was her deep appreciation of our fellowship and the few things we could give her — a siddur, a book of psalms, and a Chanukah menorah. In return she shared with us her experiences and pictures of her beautiful synagogue, now mostly empty.

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