By Ch, 1Lt Heshel Mangel, USAFR
Life is a series of circles, isn’t it? I only recently joined the US Air Force Reserve as a chaplain. My initial hope was to be attached to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which is only 45 minutes away from my house. I was told that was not an option, but was given two others: Davis-Monthan AFB or Buckley SFB. A conversation with a mentor led me to choosing Buckley, but it was only much later that I found out that as a result, it seems I’d be continuing my wife’s grandfather’s 1964 Air Force mission.
Thule Air Base is the northernmost US military base on the planet. Located in northern Greenland just a few hundred miles from the North Pole, the base is home to the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS).
During the fall of 1964, amidst the thick of the Cold War, a Jewish contractor named Chaim Tawiti found himself deployed at Thule for several months. Tawiti received a supply of kosher food from his wife, who regularly purchased shipments from a Chabad store owner named Leibel Bistritzky. A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, Tawiti’s wife mentioned to Rabbi Bistritzky that her husband, along with the significant number of Jews who were stationed there, did not have a shofar. Bistritzky promptly notified the Rebbe’s secretariat of the problem; they, in turn, called the JWB; but unfortunately, the JWB did not believe it was possible to get a shofar to Greenland in time for the holiday.
The Rebbe’s secretariat was not known to let things slide. When tasked with a job, failure simply did not exist. In some stubborn cases, the approach was to go straight to the top. In the case of Thule, electronics conglomerate RCA supported the contract for its Early Warning Systems, and the chairman of RCA was David Sarnoff, who himself was a retired Brigadier General—and a proud Jew. Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, one of the Rebbe’s aides, put in a direct call to Sarnoff and presented the problem. Sarnoff was quite touched by the request and said he would see to it that a shofar would be delivered to Thule. As a result, the sound of the shofar was heard on that Rosh Hashanah where it had likely never echoed before.
Immediately after the holiday, Tawiti returned to the US. His first stop was to meet with Rabbi Bistritzky with a fresh mission request: considering that Thule had no rabbi to lead the Yom Kippur services, maybe Chabad could send someone to assist? Again, Rabbi Bistritsky contacted Rabbi Krinsky, who called the JWB, but again, the idea was rebuffed as out of hand and impossible. And this time, given that there was less than a week to hurdle the insurmountable, even General Sarnoff doubted the success of such a venture.
My grandfather, Rabbi Shmuel Lew, knew nothing of Thule Air Base, let alone anything to do with the frantic calls reaching into the bowels of the Pentagon to receive permission for a rabbi to visit the base. He first heard of the whole thing two days after Rosh Hashanah, a Thursday, when he received an unexpected phone call from the Rebbe’s personal secretary, Rabbi Hodakov. Rabbi Hodakov informed Rabbi Lew that he was being tasked with a special mission to go to Greenland for Yom Kippur. My grandfather was taken aback— he was in the year of mourning following the loss of his mother, and he was very concerned about missing Kaddish, which is only recited with a minimum of 10 Jewish men present. “Perhaps this mission can be given to someone else?” he suggested. Rabbi Hodakov responded with steely insistence. “The Rebbe chose you by name. It’s your job.”
Upon hearing this was a personal request from the Rebbe, Rabbi Lew agreed to go. He was then given further instructions: The Rebbe told him to go to the local mikvah to pick up several boxes of disposable sandals to take for Yom Kippur, as leather shoes are prohibited to wear on this sacred day. He was to bring these in addition to Jewish literature and other religious articles, including Jewish publications in Danish—since Greenland is a Danish territory.
Yet, while these preparations were being made, permission and clearances had not been granted. But Rabbi Krinsky had a friend named Dr. Rosengard, who was then-Speaker of the House John McCormack’s personal doctor. McCormack in turn was friendly with the secretary of the Air Force, Eugene Zuckert. Through this convoluted chain of connections, McCormack called Zuckert and told him about the situation. Zuckert replied with a snap, “If that rabbi does not get to Thule, someone will owe me an explanation.” With that, the wheels finally began moving.
But as Shabbat began, the whole operation still was very much in doubt. Despite that, in his public gathering that Shabbat afternoon, the Rebbe announced that there was someone who is being sent on a special mission “to a distant county in the north.” As the Rebbe’s messenger, my grandfather was told to come up to the dais and receive a bottle of vodka as the Rebbe’s personal participation. When Rabbi Lew managed to maneuver himself up to the front, the Rebbe handed him a small bottle of vodka, telling him to drink some immediately, take another sip at the onset of the fast, and a final l’chaim as soon as the fast concluded.
Rabbi Lew took the bottle back to his seat, when suddenly, a young boy approached excitedly: “Some cops are outside 770, and they’re looking for you!” Totally bewildered as to why the police would be interested in speaking to him, Rabbi Lew again pushed and shoved through the immense crowd, eventually reaching fresh air. A burly officer barked at him, “Where ya been?! The Pentagon has been trying to reach you all day!” Rabbi Lew bemusedly explained that it was his Sabbath and he could not use the phone.
“Okay,” replied the cop, “then write down their number and call after your Sabbath.”
“I’m so sorry, but I cannot write on the Sabbath…” Rabbi Lew replied. A blank stare was the response, until the cop muttered, “Okay fine, I’ll write it down for you.”
“I’m really sorry sir,” Rabbi Lew began once again, “But I cannot carry anything on the Sabbath, so that won’t help at all!” Facing down the increasingly exasperated police officer, Rabbi Lew finally suggested, “Just tell me the number and I’ll memorize it, so I can call them after Shabbat.” The cops happily did so, and beat a hasty retreat.
But just as Shabbat was ending, terrible news began to spread: the Rebbe’s mother, Mrs. Chana Schneerson, had suffered a heart attack. She was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. Hundreds of Chassidim began streaming to the hospital; Rabbi Lew among them. But upon his arrival, Rabbi Hodakov tracked him down and delivered some important information: despite his incredible personal loss, the Rebbe was still concerned about the Jews at Thule. His exact words were, “For Shmuel, there won’t be a funeral.” Rabbi Hodakov continued, “Don’t even think of being at the funeral! Instead, go directly to McGuire AFB for your flight.” Later, the Rebbe also told Rabbi Krinsky to phone the planetarium to find out when sunset will be in Thule, and to convey that information to my grandfather.
Still in the hospital, Rabbi Lew somehow remembered the number of the contact at the Pentagon. The Rebbe’s wife handed him a quarter to pay for the call, and a brief conversation with a Pentagon staffer unlocked the last vestiges of the bureaucratic logjam. My grandfather quickly returned to Lubavitch World Headquarters, to find a pile of telegrams from several senators, the secretary of the Air Force, and even the office of the President of the United States waiting for him! The telegram from Secretary Zuckert outlined his approval of the trip as a TDY with all the requirements waived (aside from medical clearance). He was to report to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, and from there he would travel to Thule, Greenland with all expenses paid by the US Air Force.
It turned out that the medical examiner at McGuire AFB was a Jew, and Rabbi Lew had the opportunity to put on tefillin with him and talk about Judaism. With medical cleared, Rabbi Lew boarded a plane for the first leg of the journey to the Arctic. They made a stop at Goose Bay AFB in Canada at 3:00 am. A Jewish chaplain met him there, and the two rabbis spent some time together, encouraging each other’s work.
After the long journey, my grandfather finally arrived at Thule on Monday morning, greeted by the wing chaplain. Despite the friendly smiles, Rabbi Lew got the sense that he was a bit unnerved by the upper level involvement in his arrival. Ignoring those underlying feelings and anxious to get to work, Rabbi Lew asked the chaplain to show him to the synagogue. He had been told that the base chapel had a Torah scroll from which they could read on Yom Kippur, and he wanted to make sure it was kosher. The chaplain gladly brought him to the chapel, but Rabbi Lew was shocked to see a large cross on the door. He blurted out, “This is no synagogue!” The chaplain jovially responded, “Rabbi, it’s a convertible!” He pressed a button, and to Rabbi Lew’s shock, the door began to rotate, and a Star of David appeared on the other side!
Rabbi Lew then asked to see the Torah, which was being stored in the Ecclesiastical Closet. But lo and behold… it was a toy scroll, printed on paper instead of parchment. Devastated, my grandfather burst into tears. He suddenly began to comprehend how physically and spiritually different this would be from his usual Yom Kippur experience, spent in the elevated presence of the Rebbe and his fellow Chassidim. But those bitter feelings didn’t last longer than a moment. With a flash of inspiration, his mood changed completely. My grandfather recalled, “I suddenly understood that I wasn’t needed in New York; I was needed here, in Thule. The Rebbe needed me specifically to be in this place, and that moved me to an elevated level of determination and joy.”
With that, he set to work. The team began advertising the services on the local TV channels and radio stations. In the meantime, Rabbi Lew spent the remaining time before Yom Kippur meeting as many Jews on the base as he could, and helping them put on tefillin.
Kol Nidrei finally arrived, and with it, some 40 people showed up in the chapel. Rabbi Lew led services for the appreciative group. Throughout the entirety of the holiday, they had a full minyan. His speeches over the holiday reminded the gathered that each of them was important, and that there was a rabbi in Brooklyn who was personally concerned with their welfare. The energy was palpable, and everyone was deeply appreciative of Rabbi Lew’s presence.
After the holiday, Rabbi Lew flew back to New York, landing a scant 45 minutes before Shabbat, arriving home with minutes to spare before the onset of Shabbat. Before Sukkot, Rabbi Lew was told to report back to the Rebbe with the results of the experience. After submitting an 18 page report to the Rebbe, the Rebbe instructed him to stay in contact with the Jews at Thule Air Base and to continue supporting them in any way he could and provide for their religious needs. Many of the service members also wrote to the Rebbe to thank him for sending them a rabbi. My grandfather remained in contact with many of them over many years.
Hearing how my wife’s grandfather went literally to the ends of the earth to assist and support Jewish Airmen was an incredibly important part of my own journey to joining the Air Force and becoming a chaplain. The Rebbe instills in us the mandate to reach every Jew and spread the awareness of G-d through the whole world. Being able to see the excitement, emotion, and passion in my grandfather as he related this story is a lasting image I’ll always have, and it brings my role as an Air Force chaplain full circle, particularly since being assigned to support the Space Force at Buckley places Thule under our Chapel’s umbrella of responsibility. I hope I will have the opportunity to visit the Jewish Airmen there to perpetuate my wife’s grandfather’s legacy of reaching every Jewish Airman and Guardian, no matter where they are.
Originally published in the Tishrei 5783 Jewish-American Warrior