Kosher snacks in Kuwait? Holiday packets at the border of Pakistan? No problem—Kosher Troops has been the address to turn to for Jewish troops stationed across the world for over thirteen years. The organization began organically, and quite inconspicuously, when founder Sara Fuerst’s daughter, Leah now herself a mother of two—was turning 12. For her bat mitzvah project, she decided to send mishloach manot to US troops in honor of the upcoming Purim holiday. When Sara Fuerst called the Jewish Welfare Board, they connected her with Chaplain (MAJ) Andrew Shulman, who gave her a list of troops, mostly soldiers, whom he thought would appreciate the gesture.
Fuerst and her daughter then reached out to friends, neighbors, and community members for donations and help with assembling mishloach manot for Jewish service members. One of the earliest recruits was Ava Hamburger, who lives across the street from the Fuersts, a school psychologist. She was intrigued by the endeavor and immediately got involved with Fuerst. But as soon as they had started, they realized they’d hit upon a need that was sorely lacking. A bat mitzvah project turned into something much, much bigger, and an organization began taking shape.
Chanukah seemed like an overlooked holiday in the military, so after the inaugural Purim packages, the now-named Kosher Troops took on that holiday. Fuerst and Hamburger reached out to various schools to invite the students to write letters to soldiers. Then they contacted Jewish food companies to get donuts and chocolate gelt. Hamburger says, “I remember the first time I called and the owner of [the kosher bakery] Franczoz said to me, ‘What?! There are Jews in the Army?’ And then he asked, ‘Are you making any money off of this?’ When I said no, he sent me hundreds of free donuts. He gave us our start and provided the motivation.”
After that first Chanukah the two women got lots of positive feedback, which propelled them into the following holidays of Purim and Pesach, with excellent response from the broader Jewish community. Aside from putting together packages and asking for donations, they also “adopted” soldiers, creating pen pals between service members and children in schools. The deployed service members responded very positively, immensely enjoying the packages and letters from the Jewish community.
In the organization’s nascent stage, Fuerst and Hamburger would pack the boxes out of friends’ garages and homes. As the numbers increased they had to get a warehouse space. They borrowed space from a community member who owns warehouses. Currently they are renting a warehouse in Suffern, New York. Finding volunteers to pack boxes during COVID has been very challenging, but each time they find a way. The organization now sends out 1,000-1,500 boxes every holiday. “We’ve sent food to thousands of people over the years,” Hamburger says.
So how do people hear about Kosher Troops? Mostly through word of mouth, Hamburger says. If someone is Jewish and in the military, service members will tell each other to sign up to receive packages, or maybe the chaplain will mention it. “Some people get confused because they hear ‘Kosher Troops’ and think it’s only for people who keep kosher, which is not the case,” Hamburger says. “Most of our recipients aren’t fully kosher-observant. We serve everyone.”
Every Kosher Troops package comes with a military themed holiday guide, shelf-stable food, snacks, treats, games, and more, based on the time of year. Chanukah boxes hold donuts, dreidels, and gelt; Purim packages include masks, hamentashen, and graggers; and Pesach and Rosh Hashanah deliveries include traditional food items for those holidays that are largely unavailable outside standard Jewish communities.
For kosher-observant Jews, Kosher Troops will send additional hard-to-get food items like beef jerky, canned foods, instant soups, and boxed meals. Sometimes Kosher Troops will get requests for specialty items that are perishable or difficult to ship. In all cases they try their best, but the vagaries of the mail system dictate the result. Hamburger remembers that one Chanukah, a deployed soldier expressed a serious craving for jelly donuts. That was a tricky request, Hamburger says, as they had to vacuum-pack the donut very carefully. Before shipping it out, she tested one out by letting a sealed donut sit for a week and a half to see how it would taste—and was quite gratified at the successful result! Another time, a chaplain wondered how he could make cholent in his undisclosed region—Kosher Troops responded by sending him a coffee pot, an electric plate, and a crock pot with beans and beef jerky. Mission accomplished!
Even though their focus is on kosher food, they occasionally wade into Judaica when it is requested. Hamburger recalls sending tefillin to someone in Pakistan, but notes that’s not the only time she did so. “You name it, we’ve sent it—mezuzahs, Shabbat candles, benchers, haggadahs, and more.” A more remarkable story occurred when Fuerst and Hamburger sent a siddur to a soldier originally from their own neighborhood. This man carried the siddur with him wherever he went. He later ended up in a major accident with several casualties, but he survived. This soldier later told them that he was certain the siddur had saved his life.
Kosher Troops is in a unique position to connect Jewish military members with each other. Some people will tell Fuerst and Hamburger that they don’t know if there are Jews in their area. The women will make introductions based on their list of recipients. “We know who the Jews are and where the food is,” Hamburger explains, “and we’ll tell the service members if they don’t know!”
Another time, Fuerst and Hamburger sent rugelach to a service member who was stationed in a Middle Eastern country. “You don’t really advertise that you’re Jewish there,” Hamburger says. “A couple of guys noticed and said to the man, ‘You’re eating rugelach! Where’d you get those?’ They were Jewish too and couldn’t believe he had managed to get rugelach!”
It’s her dream that more people would recognize just how many Jewish military members there are. People don’t realize that there is such a strong Jewish presence in the military. “We would love for military support to become a regular concept in American households—the idea that we serve our country’s military and support this organization that helps them,” Hamburger says. She hopes that as word continues to spread about Kosher Troops, more people will step up. “It’s a challenge for military families to have their spouses deployed, live on base, and have a hard time with kosher food,” she says.
The two co-founders are pleased with what they’ve accomplished so far, but they’re far from finished with their work. “I’d love to see Kosher Troops grow and be more of a resource to these families. Military wives and kids need support, not just the troops,” Fuerst says. It means so much to them, and it’s important to continue this support.
“Our cause is not one of life or death,” Hamburger adds. “The military people aren’t starving, but it’s meaningful work that shows service members how much we care about them.” Every gesture makes a big difference at Kosher Troops.
Originally published in the Pesach 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.