Skip to main content

By: CH (MAJ) Joseph Messinger, USA

Chanukah 2009 found me deployed to Afghanistan in support of the 82nd Airborne’s mission to provide comprehensive Jewish religious coverage and support for Operation Enduring Freedom. It was a year full of battlefield circulation, patrols, convoys, a visit to the country’s last synagogue and last Jew, and even serving as a rabbinic kosher certifier of raisins, which in turn were exported to the global community. Naturally, I could not be everywhere, and I would collect stories of what the holidays were like in other locations.

One day shortly after Chanukah, I met a Battalion Chaplain who looked at my name and Chaplain insignia and said, “Messinger… Yes! I’ve been getting your emails. Thank you! I want to show you a video.” This Chaplain was from a unit that was forward deployed to a tiny COP (Combat Outpost) near the Durand Line. The Durand Line starts in Iran, ends in China, and bifurcates Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the southern border of the Hindu Kush, the elevation is high and both the roads and sky are not easily traversed. It is not a friendly place for Americans.

So out comes his camera and he proceeds to play a series of videos. At first it was hard to see what I was looking at. I thought it was a video of the sun—sometimes the sun can shine so brilliantly that the image resolves as a dark sky and a bright ball of light. But these lights were slowly falling earthward and then illuminating the jagged edges of the mountainous and booby-trapped Hindu Kush. What I was looking at were phosphorus flares used as battlefield illumination. They are fired from artillery, and when they go off, they momentarily turn the impenetrable blackness of a mountain night into high noon. Like mini-suns, they shine and turn the concealed visible. Now seeing this in  person is amazing, but why was this Chaplain showing me these video clips? Why so many, and why did each video add another phosphorus flare?

And then he explained. “A few of my Soldiers are Jewish. I had candles, dreidels, and other holiday items for them, but being so far away from home, I wanted to make sure that my Soldiers had a special and memorable Chanukah, and even bring them a little closer to God. I wanted to do something more for them. So I spoke with my command and coordinated at the Company level that every night of Chanukah an appropriate number of flares would be fired into the sky. On the first night of Chanukah we shot off one, and then each subsequent night added another, until there were eight simultaneous flares hanging in the deep night, illuminating two countries!”

I was amazed. A story made possible only by US Military Chaplaincy: a Protestant Christian ministering to the needs of Jewish Soldiers, with the sincerest wish of helping them connect to their heritage and ultimately the meaning of life.

Internally, I wonder what’s the other half of the story? I would like to believe that on those nights of Chanukah, multiple attacks of enemy combatants were thwarted. Shadowy figures slowly creeping in and infiltrating the switchbacks of the mountain terrain were caught off guard and wondered how those Americans knew where they were. “Ok,” says one to the other, “We’ll try again tomorrow!” But the next night… “Oh no!” he declares again and again, “Look at those lights! They must know we are here!” But who can know every detail in the vast tapestry
of history?

What I do know is that just as the ancient Maccabees looked to G-d for a light to guide their ways and firm their footsteps, this fellow Chaplain, in the highest tradition of the United States Military Chaplaincy, did the same for his Jewish Soldiers with undoubtedly the brightest Chanukah menorah ever lit! Yarmulkes on and hats off to you, brother Chaplain! Pro Deo et Patria!

Originally published in the Chanukah 5782 Jewish-American Warrior