By: MAJ Nick B. Israel, MI ANG
After I left US Army active duty, I worked for a Washington, DC-area non-government organization (NGO) for several years. The NGO sponsored projects with deployed American troops and diplomats working with allied military organizations and governments around the world. I worked mostly in the Caucasus region, the Balkans, and the Baltic countries.
Shortly after I left the NGO and moved back to Michigan, I got a call from a soldier who I had worked with in Europe. He called from the Middle East, where he had been unexpectedly deployed in response to escalating tensions with Iran. His parents had gone on vacation to Antigua, he told me. Sadly, soon after his parents’ flight home took off, his father suffered a heart attack. Despite the plane’s emergency return to Antigua followed by a swift ambulance ride and hospital care, the heart attack proved fatal.
The soldier’s mother was left bereaved and alone on Antigua, isolated in a hotel, struggling with the effort to bring her husband’s remains home to Virginia for burial. The soldier’s deployment circumstances limited his access to the internet and international telephone connections. This greatly restricted his ability to communicate with his mother in Antigua. The army would arrange his emergency transportation home, he told me, but that would take days. Recalling our results-oriented—and sometimes unconventional—work in Europe, the soldier asked if I could help.
I found likely US diplomatic telephone numbers and made phone calls, employing persistence and the squeaky-wheel approach. Eventually I contacted the right person in the right place and was able to get the soldier’s mother in contact with State Department officials. They helped, but the soldier’s burdened mother needed more support to cut through the Antiguan red tape. With the (non-Jewish) soldier’s authorization, I called a rabbi.
In particular, I called the Chabad rabbi in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Rabbi Zalman Bluming, who I knew from my time at Fort Bragg. I explained the situation and asked if the rabbi had Antiguan connections. Chabad is famous as the New York headquartered movement well known for outreach to Jews and placing rabbis throughout the world, often in unlikely locations, to do mitzvot wherever needed, as Aleph does for Jews in uniform. Rabbi Bluming did not know anyone in Antigua, he said, but he gave me an introduction to a Chabad rabbi in Aruba, Rabbi Ahron Blasberg, who lived in the same Caribbean neighborhood.
The Aruban rabbi in turn gave me an introduction to a Jewish community member who had settled in Antigua by way of Pennsylvania. Hearing about the circumstances of the deployed American soldier and his mother, my new Antiguan mishpacha (family) member said he would be happy to help.
I gave him the soldier’s mother’s Antiguan contact information. He went to her hotel immediately and insisted she stay with his family while things got sorted out. Over the next few days, he accompanied the soldier’s mother to Antiguan government offices. He served as her advocate and facilitated the authorizations needed to bring her husband’s remains home for burial. Mission accomplished.
Within hours of my first Middle East to Michigan phone contact with the distressed soldier, through the help of these Chabad rabbis in North Carolina and Aruba as well as the Antiguan mensch, the soldier and his mother were the grateful beneficiaries of the kindness of strangers. For me, my soldier friend, and his mother, the kindness was wonderful. For Chabad, however, doing mitzvot is just another day at the office.
Nick B. Israel served as a US Army armor and psychological operations officer, in the US, the Middle East, and Europe. He is now a major in the Michigan Air National Guard.
Originally published in the Purim 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.