By: Colonel Bonnie Hartstein, MD, MBA, FACEP Director, AMEDD Quality and Safety Center
Emergency Medicine Consultant to the Surgeon General
When I arrived in Afghanistan, my first order of business was to find the Shabbat services, as prayer and ritual bring me comfort, especially when away. My quest led me to the post chaplain. He was a large man, a Navy officer and Episcopal minister, and I remember two things from the encounter: I learned there were no services and he immediately appointed me the Jewish lay leader. He said that he recalled meeting one Jewish service member in a unit on post and would email me the details once he remembered.
I went back to the tent I shared with other women from my unit and flipped open my computer. I ordered some books about Shabbat on Amazon, did a search for the weekly parshah (Torah portion), took out my portable candlesticks, and began to plan. I was ready to take on my new role.
But after a few weeks went by and no email came from the chaplain, it started to look like I would be my only congregant.
Soon the December holiday season was upon us, and while touring one of my fellow physician’s aid
stations, I noticed a small Chanukiah under the holiday tree display. I pointed to it and my friend, a Navy doctor, said “Oh, yeah. My medics made me put my menorah out too.” “Adam!” I exclaimed,
“You’re a Jew!” And with that, the Camp Dwyer Jewish Community began to take shape.
Soon we found a few more Jewish service members and contractors. We began to meet regularly for Shabbat and celebrated holidays together. In a place where fun was in short supply, our events generated a lot of cross-cultural interest. Many of my fellow medics came out for our Chanukah party where the dining facility even made us latkes. We donned masquerade masks and noshed on hamantashen and candy that a stateside congregation had sent us for Purim.
Soon it was time to plan for Pesach. Our friends from other faiths expressed interest in participating in a Passover seder, a first for many. But leading a Passover seder seemed daunting to me. Setting the Passover table, no problem. There was a lot more to the responsibility of leading a seder, and it wasn’t going to be solved by downloading a guide from Aish.com, my go-to resource for Shabbat.
My friend the chaplain let me know there was a senior rabbi coming from the States to lead a seder at Camp Leatherneck, and I was invited to attend. It was merely a short helicopter flight away, but how could I leave my community? I insisted that the rabbi should come to us, making my case with the hosting chaplain’s office. Now we really had an event to plan.
The minister gave me a key to an old connex, on a hunch there might be Passover items inside. My newly-assembled planning team set out on an expedition to discover our treasure: a large cache of US Military issued unopened Passover kits from years past. They were dusty but still functional. We excavated boxes of haggadahs, colorful tin seder plates, beautifully embroidered matzah covers preserved perfectly in plastic, and even found freeze-dried shank bones!
We distributed posters and fliers inviting others to join us to celebrate, and the response emails flooded in as the day neared. I secured an empty hangar, and the non-commissioned officers from the hospital brought us tables and chairs as the medics set up the seder plates. Each one featured an egg, matzah, horseradish and, of course, a shank bone fit for an astronaut. A shipment from my mother-in-law brought miles of tablecloths and we soon transformed the sterile cavernous space into a Passover palace.
Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating. I looked up into the gray skies and felt a raindrop hit my face. I called the Leatherneck chaplain’s office with trepidation. Indeed, all flights were suspended. We had only a few hours left—would the storm blow over? The rabbi got on the phone. I pleaded with him, saying that we had over 60 people assembling for the seder. He said he would do everything he could to make it.
As our guests arrived, I gripped the black brick of the radio at my hip. We still didn’t know if the rabbi would come. I ran my fingers over the front of the haggadah, my mouth dry. Suddenly, ten more Marines came in, stacking their rifles up against the canvas side of the hangar. We needed more seder plates! Our skilled team arranged two more seder plates and dressed another table with the white embossed cloths.
Just then, my radio crackled to life—the rabbi was on his way! We dispatched an ambulance to the flight line and soon, in walked a distinguished-looking Navy captain, his lapel bearing the tablets and lions emblematic of the Jewish chaplain. I introduced myself and we exchanged warm greetings. He was Rabbi Irv Elson, who now serves as the Endorser of the JWB. I settled down in my seat, and as he began to explain the traditions and sing the prayers, I was filled with the familiar loving glow that comes from the beauty of our traditions.
I have prepared many a seder table since then, watching my youngest learn and perfect the Four Questions, as she is also the youngest cousin. Each year, as Passover brings together the people I love most, I am always reminded of my seder at Camp Dwyer. When the time comes to symbolically open the door for Elijah, I flashback to the Navy rabbi, who sauntered in on a dark rainy night, as welcomed and amazing as Elijah himself.
Originally published in the Pesach 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.