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A New York Judge’s Organization Brings Community Together by Sending Care Packages to Service Members.

For the past two decades, a workers compensation judge in Rochester, New York with no direct military connection has been coordinating care packages for deployed soldiers. How he came to spearhead this special project is a story of its own.

Judge Keith Freedman, a life-long Rochesterian, came to launch the Jewish Soldiers Project (JSP) in a roundabout way. In 2003, a close friend, MAJ J.V., deployed to Afghanistan with the Army Reserves. Concerned, and eager to show his personal support, Freedman initially hit upon an idea to send care packages, enlisting the help of his son’s Cub Scouts pack. A man of action, he quickly learned that MAJ V. was stationed at the fledgling Afghanistan Department of Education—created in response to the Afghan children’s education crisis, itself due to the Taliban shuttering all schools. This led to a fresh concept: Freedman and MAJ V. founded The Pencil Project, in which Cub Scout troops collected school supplies and sent them to Afghanistan. After the major’s return to CONUS, the Scouts continued the new tradition of sending holiday care packages to service members in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After several years of running this meaningful service, Freedman found himself wondering whether there were Jews in the military. He googled “Jewish soldiers in Iraq” and discovered a Stars and Stripes article about Jewish service members celebrating Chanukah in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces (see Chanukah 2021 Jewish American Warrior). Intrigued, Freedman reached out to the author of that article about ways he could help. His sleuthing eventually forged a connection with US Army Reserve Chaplain (LTC) Shlomo Shulman, who happily agreed to assist him in his search. Receiving names and addresses, Freedman collected Chanukah cards from his synagogue’s Hebrew school and sent them overseas, and the Jewish Soldiers Project (JSP) was born.

Sending out cards was one thing—becoming a kosher food supply depot was another, and that began in Passover 2008. Shortly prior to that holiday season, Freedman collected money at his synagogue to send 10 packages to service members. One of the recipients sent an email thanking Freedman for the package and cc’d Sara Fuerst at Kosher Troops, who had also sent a package. Eager to make new contacts, Freedman wrote to Fuerst, introducing himself and asking about their organization. And that’s how a collaboration between JSP and Kosher Troops started, working in tandem to coordinate sending packages to service members as efficiently as possible.

Ongoing awareness of JSP is spread primarily by word of mouth, from one service member to another, or via his Facebook page. Friendly chaplains of all faiths are also eager to help, and at this point, Freedman has several thousand Jewish service members in his database.

Since its inception, JSP has been both a community and family-wide effort—Freedman and his sons would pack boxes in his family room along with volunteers coming from every synagogue in the Rochester area. Every winter, JSP’s Soldiers Hanukkah Card Project sends cards to military personnel on behalf of the JSP and the entire Jewish community of Rochester. In 2022, the JSP sent over 6,000 cards made by students from 150 schools in 35 states.

The relatively small town of Rochester brings about more community connections—the post office doesn’t have enough staff to ship all the packages at the same time, so Freedman has managed to overcome some of the problems by becoming good friends with the local postal workers. They allow Freedman to arrive before opening time, and he makes sure to stagger his shipments, so as not to disrupt the regular post.

During the year, Freedman sends Shabbat boxes with grape juice, challah, and baked goods. Around the holidays, JSP sends about 125 boxes containing specialized goods. He always drops a few Chanukah cards from children in the packages, even not in proximity to Chanukah, as the Chanukah cards elicit extremely positive reactions.

While preparing for an upcoming holiday project, Freedman visits some of the participating schools (in person or virtually) to educate students about the impact their cards have, helping them understand what to them might be a relatively obscure concept. “I explain that soldiers are just like their mom and dad, but have a different job, one that requires them to go away for a long time,” Freedman says. “I say, ‘Imagine if your mom and dad had to go away for a year. Wouldn’t you want them to know you’re thinking of them?’ This is a concept that they can relate to.”

For this judge, Jewish Soldiers Project is truly a personal labor of love. Freedman funds the project primarily on his own during the year; and considering the significantly higher costs of the Passover season, he raises funds from local and national contacts to cover the expenses of that holiday. “Every Jewish service member must feel connected back home,” he says. A heartfeltn sentiment felt across thousands of miles.

Judge Freedman can be reached at [email protected], and through his organization’s Facebook page,

Originally published in the Three Weeks 5783 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.