Military chaplains: An Orthodox rabbi mixes faith and patriotism in Afghanistan
Army Capt. Shmuel Felzenberg juggles outreach to local Muslims, interfaith counseling, and the kosher quest
Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan
When the bus doors open, 20 soldiers clamber out, laughing, reaching for their cameras like college kids on spring break. Yet they haven't traveled far. Part of the Army's 82nd Airborne, they've driven 10 minutes across this coalition forces base from their US camp to the Egyptian-run hospital compound.Skip to next paragraph
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Still, in a space bound by blast-walls and concertina wire, this qualifies as an adventure because, during the next couple of hours, they will bring together two disparate worlds: that of Afghan villagers who've suffered the ravages of consecutive wars and that of Americans who have gathered in church basements and synagogues, private homes and community centers from New Jersey to California, filling boxes with donated items – everything from toys to toiletries.
Directly or indirectly, the boxes wend their way to the offices of US Army chaplains, who turn the distribution of donations into a feel-good outing for their soldiers.
At the helm of this base outreach program is Shmuel Felzenberg, an Army captain who darts around the grounds as soldiers unload boxes from a truck and set up tables. Under his military cap he wears a black yarmulke, and on his uniform the insignia that mark him as a Jewish chaplain – two tablets topped by a star.
"Ready to go hot," he calls out, and the soldiers position themselves behind the tables.
Minutes later, Afghan women in dark-colored head scarves and blue, pleated chadris (full head and body veils) queue up at the gate. Egyptian soldiers usher them in, and as the Afghans move from table to table, American soldiers, semiautomatic rifles slung across their backs, reach into the boxes and hand them sweaters, shoes, baby clothes, notebooks, and toys.
Chaplain Felzenberg rummages through a separate box and extracts woolen caps that one of his daughters knitted – "Bless her heart, he says, "she put them in separate bags but didn't mark the sizes." Then he pulls out a loose-fitting top he last saw on his wife. "It's going to be emotional to give some of this out," he says, "but hey...."
While his supplies last, he hands clothing from his ultra-Orthodox Jewish home to Muslim Afghan children whose mothers wear the orthodox-Muslim chadri.
The scene says much about Felzenberg and his duties as brigade chaplain. While remaining faithful to his own religious convictions, he reaches across faith lines, both in his work with the Egyptians and in his daily interactions with his troops. And, even in this ostensibly charitable mission, the troops are his priority. Coming here gets them out of their routine, while handing out gifts can make them feel good about themselves. And it is, as he tells them in his briefing, "a photo op." For when else do soldiers confined to the base get the chance to snap photos of women in sky-blue chadris, men with embroidered caps, and children with black, kohl-rimmed eyes?
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Felzenberg had been a rabbi for eight years when, in 1999, he walked into an Army recruiter's office in Morristown, in his native New Jersey. Aware and grateful, he says, "of the persecution and hardship that I did not grow up with," he felt an obligation "as a Jew living in America, reaping the benefits afforded by the Constitution, to pay back."
Patriotic fervor, however, cut no ice with the recruiter, who wondered what to do with this grown man in the traditional full beard, dark clothes, and hat of a Chabad rabbi. He enlisted soldiers, he did not handle chaplains. The recruiter politely showed him the door .
"So I went back in," says Felzenberg, who is five feet tall and exudes enough energy to power a city grid. "As a taxpayer, I said, show me what it's about." In the stirring recruiting video and brochures, Felzenberg saw both need and legitimacy. The next day, he called the Army chaplain headquarters.
Now on his second wartime deployment – his first was in Iraq – Felzenberg is militantly patriotic and staunchly supports President Bush's policies, with views that often echo pro-war fundamentalist voices back in the US.
"To lose the global war on terrorism," he says matter-of-factly, "would be the downfall of either our great nation or the world as we know it." America, he continues, "leads the way in a fight against evil," against an enemy that "has directly given notice that they mean no good, they mean no benefit, they cannot be negotiated with. To deal with them with clear effort and extreme prejudice," he believes, "is the only way to dispatch the appropriate message."