By: Chaplain (CPT) Michoel Harari, USA
Shortly before Passover 2019, I found myself at Fort Irwin in California where the National Training Center (NTC) is located. I was there for a month, doing pre-deployment training exercises with 1-229 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion (ARB), in a place we called “the box,” a small area near Death Valley with similar terrain to Afghanistan and parts of the Middle East.
After the training ended, we were on our 27-hour bus ride back to the base when I got a call from 7th ID Division headquarters. “Rabbi, where are you?” the division command chaplain asked. I replied that we were on our way back from NTC, to which he said, “That means your bags are packed, right?” I said, “Roger that, Sir. It’s all good.” Then the division command chaplain told me, “When you get back we need you to go to Fort Magsaysay in the Philippines. We have a number of Jewish service members there who need a Passover seder.”
The order came as a surprise, but of course I was ready to go. After we hung up, I quickly called my wife Mishi to break the news that I wouldn’t be home for Passover. I said, “How would you like to go to Los Angeles for Pesach, to be with your family?” And she said, “What’s the catch?” I told her, “There’s no catch—would you like to go to LA for the holiday?” Understanding dawned and she asked me where I was going. “Somewhere else,” was all I could say. Ever supportive, Mishi said to me, “You go where you’re needed.”
Passover was fast approaching, but with the help of Aleph Institute and the Army, I got everything I needed for the holiday within 72 hours. This included a massive fresh horseradish root for maror, plenty of matzah, grape juice, seder plates—everything necessary to conduct a seder was either with me or being shipped to Fort Magsaysay, the Philippines’ Special Forces base and the largest military installation in the Philippines.
As I was preparing to head out, I got word that someone I know would be backpacking in the Philippines over the holiday. I made sure to bring him some matzah as well.
When we landed in Manilla, a helicopter picked me up and took me into the jungle where the Airborne training center is located at Fort Magsaysay. I remember coming off the helicopter overladen with all the Passover supplies, and a passing Jewish service member saw me and stopped. “Rabbi, what are you doing here?” he asked. I told him, “What do you mean? I’m here for you!” He was incredibly touched by this, and it was a special moment for both of us.
The Jewish service members were very moved by the fact that the Army had gone out of its way to provide full support for them to practice their religion on Passover, and I felt honored to be chosen to serve this purpose. We went on to have two lovely seders for eight Jewish service members at the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) tent located in the middle of the sweltering, muggy jungle. The tent wasn’t huge—about 20 feet by 15 feet—and although the tent contained other equipment, our group had plenty of room. Each soldier had a chance to share meaningful memories from long-ago seders, such as special customs that their parents and grandparents used to do. While this was going on, other soldiers quietly came in and out of the tent to take and return tactical equipment. Curious and respectful, they waited to ask all their questions until after we finished our seders, so as not to interrupt the religious proceedings.
We celebrated the end of Passover with a Seudat Moshiach, a traditional gathering on the final day in which we had a mini-seder replete with Jewish melodies that originated from 17th- and 18th-century Chabad villages in Eastern Europe, as well as—you guessed it—more matzah and wine! Just in time for this event, I met another service member who hadn’t known about the seders but was thrilled to partake in this last meal before the holiday ended and I returned to the States.
While this trip had been planned in almost no time at all, the memories of spending such a unique Passover in the Philippine jungle will stay with me for years to come.