By Chaplain (CPT) Michael Harari, USA
Last year’s High Holiday mission in Romania demonstrated the veracity of that well-worn adage, “When there’s a will, there’s a way.”
The stage was set with Operation Atlantic Resolve. My unit was deployed at Cincu Joint Training Area, located in the remote mountains of Romania, training with our European NATO Allies. It was a long road, in more ways than one, from there to the closest functional synagogue for High Holiday services.
It started with a proud Jewish soldier: SFC M. stood out among the 1-16th Infantry’s Jewish soldiers, most of whom are subordinates, encouraging them by his own example to be open with their enthusiasm and practice of their faith, as is supported by the US Army doctrine. (He also provided necessary means of travel for a group of soldiers in Bulgaria while subsequently fulfilling parts delivery missions.) Eventually, we identified a group of six soldiers who wanted to celebrate Yom Kippur properly.
I felt that the Divine assistance in this mission became even more blatant with our endeavor to obtain Jewish prayer books. The director of religious education at Fort Riley’s Religious Support Office, Mr. Taylor, was able to acquire the necessary religious texts for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana. But the books had to be shipped first to Fort Riley and then forwarded to the APO in Europe. The order was made long after the connexes were packed and the unit was deployed, so all packages had to be sent through official mail. The books were initially held up due to shipping slowdowns at US docks. But incredibly enough, they arrived one day before Rosh Hashanah began. The look of pure joy on the Jewish service members’ faces when they realized they would have English/Hebrew texts to pray from was priceless. But in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, we still needed to get ourselves to a synagogue.
As everyone in the military knows, scheduling conflicts create complications that can be a real pain to deal with. While working on the logistics of transporting these soldiers to Bucharest, the gunnery timeline changed for the 23 crews that needed to shoot; T6—a most critical event—needed to shift to accommodate the Romanian Special Forces’ use of the range. This left us scrambling with less than a day to adjust our carefully crafted plans to ensure that whoever wished to attend Yom Kippur services would be allowed to do so. But with all the real-time manipulating of the schedule, it was proving to be difficult to get anyone off the range during the live fire exercises. After numerous calls, I was able to secure complete support from our team leaders, including Attack Company Platoon Sergeant SFC R., Commander CPT F., 1SG B., and PL 1LT R. They pledged to do their best to help the Jewish service members in the area make it to High Holiday services.
I was highly encouraged when our First Sergeant B. told me, “I will never say no to a soldier who wishes to practice their faith.” Yet the challenge was that some of the soldiers who requested to attend the Jewish holiday services had already qualified for Day Table 6 but still needed to do Night Table 6. Once the range was hot, there would be no way for anyone to go in or out. This meant that when the crew started to shoot, there would not be enough time to get to Bucharest before the start of the holiday.
As obstacle after obstacle presented itself, leadership and our team refused to give up. We continued to put our heads together and discovered that with a bit of determination, pretty much anything is possible.
We started by looking at maps of the range to see if there was any other way out of the area while the range was hot— and we hit paydirt! We noticed a road that did not cross over the impact area. We asked our Battalion XO if he knew anything about this access point. He responded that we did not have access to it because it was a private road. This left us with only one option: Speak to the farmer who owns the road. Of course, none of us spoke Romanian, but why let a small detail like that get in the way?
Within a half hour we found ourselves attempting to converse with the local peasant farmer and two of his employees, none of whom spoke a word of English. After spending some time helping the farmer out with straightening his fences and milking his cows, all the while communicating with the help of a phone translating app, hand gestures, and stick figure drawings, we somehow managed to convey the point—would he be so kind as to allow us to pass through his property? Thankfully, our new friend happily agreed. “Winning hearts and minds”—whatever it takes!
Our next step was to ensure that our soldiers would be among the first crew to shoot, so they could leave the range as soon as possible. But looking deeper into the timeline, we realized this would still not give us enough time to get to Bucharest before the onset of the holiday. Suddenly, a better plan hit me: maybe they could do the shoot late at night after Yom Kippur, after returning from Bucharest? Of course this was a long shot, as it went against the guidance of our Battalion Commander, who stated that no one can leave the range until everyone qualifies.
It was critical now that we get the support of everyone up the chain of command, including direct permission from the Battalion Commander himself. None of this would be possible without him. After working the chain, I got on the phone with our Battalion Commander, LTC K., and briefly explained our predicament. After explaining the nature of Yom Kippur and why it would only be possible for the soldiers to stay in Bucharest for the duration of the holiday rather than return to gunnery early, LTC K. gave us the go-ahead, adding that we should not return until after the holiday ended.
With permission granted, our preps took on a feverish pitch. OPS SGM T. allowed for the smooth acquisition of vehicles and served as a reliable contact to receive information on the shifting schedules of the gunnery mission. Soon enough, the last three soldiers were seated in the car as it sped off the range and bounced down the farmer’s unmarked dirt road towards Bucharest.
Yom Kippur that year proved to be an incredibly powerful experience for all. This was despite the fact that I ended up fasting for twodays instead of one, as we got to our destination with only minutes to spare before the fast started. I barely had time to gulp down a glass of water and change into my holiday clothes before we headed to the synagogue for Kol Nidrei. But that didn’t bother me in the slightest—I was elated by the success of our mission.
To be able to stand there and pray in the nearly 200 year-old synagogue was a moving experience I will never forget; but I wasn’t the only one uplifted. One soldier told me it was the most meaningful Jewish experience he’d ever had. Another soldier had recently lost his father, and he was deeply grateful for the opportunity to recite the yizkor prayer in his memory. The local Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Naftali, had tears in his eyes when he mentioned to me what his wife had told him— that despite the many challenges they have faced over the years, she felt it was worth it all just to be able to connect with one of our female soldiers, and to be there for her on that special day.
Immediately after havdalah at the conclusion of the holiday, we jumped back in our vehicle and headed back to Cincu. When we arrived back at gunnery deep in the night, we could hear the rapid fire of the coax and distinct thud of 25MMs hitting their intended targets. At 0104 the range went cold for a brief 12 minutes, thanks to Master Gunnery SFC A., who was manning the range tower. It was just enough time to be cleared to drop off our precious cargo of soldiers who hit the ground running so they could get back to their BFVs (Bradley fighting vehicles) as soon as possible. At 0116 the range lit up again with an awesome display of firepower.
Looking back, the success of this Religious Accommodation mission truly lay in the collaboration of numerous soldiers and civilians, Jews and non-Jews, officers and enlisted. We had many people to thank for their efforts, which may have seemed small, yet it had a lasting effect upon the nature and potential of Religious Accommodation in a field environment. This event, which was truly a capstone achievement, was documented and submitted to the 1st Infantry Division as incredible religious support in putting people first.
But most importantly, for all involved, that dusty and grimy Yom Kippur will always conjure the deep, satisfied feelings of mission accomplished.
Originally published in the Three Weeks 5782 Jewish-American Warrior