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By: Michael Gaerman, MSGT , NYANG

Many years ago, when I was a rabbinical student in Sydney, Australia, I had the opportunity to lead a Passover seder for the small Jewish community in the remote island of Tasmania. One of the fascinating things about Tasmania (besides its Devil), is its crucial connection to Australian Jewish heritage. The first Australian Jews were English convicts, sent to the distant outpost in the early 1800s. Many served out their punishments as slaves, forced to build the new Australian colony.

It follows naturally that Tasmania has the oldest Australian synagogue. But upon visiting, I was captivated by more than its age. The synagogue itself carries the desperation and humility of its first congregants. Etched above the front door is a fitting verse from Exodus. Right after giving the Torah to the recently freed Jewish slaves, God promised: “Wherever my name is mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.” This was an especially appropriate verse to frame the entryway to a synagogue that still bears the iron clasps to which Jews’ leg irons were shackled during prayer.

I will always remember that small synagogue and what I learned there. There were various times in my life, including during military service, when I felt spiritual loneliness as the single Jew in an area, unit, or assignment. In those times, without a minyan, and with scarce kosher food, I remember the first Australian congregants and how they managed to find spiritual guidance to illuminate their darkness.

This brings me to the Festival of Lights. Last year, as Chanukah approached, I knew I would be away from home—working on a court-martial—at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Although I would be away from my family for the holiday, I wanted to make it special and combine my celebration of Chanukah with my pride in serving my country as an American Airman. I decided to make a military menorah. I grew up with the custom of honoring Chanukah with a silver menorah (known as “hiddur mitzvah,” or beautifying the mitzvah).

In modern times, silver menorahs are most often made of sterling, or 925/1000 parts silver. This Airman applied the Air Force core value of “excellence in all we do” and began with the purest silver (999 instead of 925). I ordered eight 12-gauge pure .999 five oz solid silver shotgun shells from eBay (my alternate HOR), and used a drill press to individually hollow out receptacles for the oil. The drilling was the hardest part because it was a noisy and delicate process involving several high-end drill bits and lots of patience. Once the drilling and apologies to my wife for the noise were complete, I set the shotgun shells in place with an OCP military issue shotgun shell holder. To pay homage to the olive oil Chanukah miracle, I fastened the shells to an olive wood base. For the shammash, or servant lighter, I used a jet lighter similar to Air Force jet engine flames. To mirror the flames, the background is made of nine genuine B-52 bomber jet engine blades. And to top it off, I attached a genuine World War II Army Air Forces silver Bombardier Aerial Gunner badge.

After bargaining with safety officers and assuring them that I would stay with the flames for as long as they were lit, I got formal permission to light the menorah on the windowsill of the Law Office Superintendent’s office at Dover Air Force Base. So on the seventh and eighth nights of Chanukah, I celebrated with the three other Jews I managed to find on base. I lit the electric menorah in front of the base chapel and lit my one-of-a-kind U.S. military menorah back at the JAG office. As I watched the flames dance, I thought of another American Jew who lit a menorah on military ground less than 100 miles from Dover, more than two centuries earlier.

They say George Washington himself saw the flames and was intrigued by the odd-looking candle holder at the Valley Forge encampment in the winter of 1777. When our first commander-in-chief inquired as to its meaning, a Jewish Continental Army soldier explained the customs and miracles of Chanukah to him. The similarity of circumstances between Chanukah and the Revolutionary War was not lost on Washington. Like the rebellion of Judah and the Maccabees, Washington’s Continental Army was vastly outnumbered, outgunned, and undertrained. But like the Maccabees, they were highly motivated to revolt against the ruling empire because their freedom and way of life was at stake. Our first president is rumored to have been inspired by the encounter, and after the war he participated in another Chanukah celebration with that soldier’s family.

This year, I intend to light my Military Menorah with my wife and daughter in New York City. But wherever I light the menorah, the dancing flames will beckon me to reflect. Reflect on our historical struggles against tyranny, the sacrifices we make for freedom, and the miracles God blesses us with wherever His name is mentioned.

MSgt Gaerman currently serves as the Law Office Superintendent at the 106 Rescue Wing, NYANG. In his civilian capacity, he is a prosecutor with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

Originally printed in the Chanukah 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.