By: CH (MAJ) Moshe Lans, USA
I deployed from 2010-2011 to Afghanistan with Taskforce Mustang from Fort Hood, Texas. I was in Bagram Air Field, awaiting transportation to fly to a different base in regional command RC North, to go back to the Mazar-i-Sharif, where I was stationed. With little notice, there was a gigantic sandstorm, and my flight was canceled. Annoyed, I pulled out my laptop to inform my command that my flight had been canceled. As I sat there working, an African-American soldier who had just gotten off a C-17 walked up to me and said, “Oh wow, a Jewish chaplain! It’s so great that I’m seeing you.” In his hand was a brown paper sack, which he held out to me. In response to my puzzled look, he withdrew an ancient-looking
pair of tefillin from the bag and said, “Would you help me put these on?” Recognizing there was more to the story, I asked him to meet me in the chapel, which he did about twenty minutes later.
The soldier appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties, almost ready for retirement. He introduced
himself to me and began to tell me his family story. “My grandfather was a Jew who survived Auschwitz,” he began. “He was the sole surviving member of his family. After he left Europe, he moved to South America, where he met a local Black girl, and they fell in love. While my grandfather was convinced G-d does not exist because of the Holocaust, he said to his future wife, ‘Just in case I’m wrong, I will not marry you until you undergo conversion to Judaism.’ The young woman agreed to convert, and
they found another Holocaust survivor who was a rabbi, who assisted them. After her conversion and their subsequent marriage, the couple went on to have several children, one of whom was my mother. She came to the United States for college and met my father there. After dating for a while, my dad said to my mom, ‘Look, I know we have a mutual attraction, but there’s no way I can get into a serious relationship with you, because I’m a Jew and my family only marries Jews.’ Of course, my mom responded, ‘My family is Jewish as well!’ After she provided proof that her mom had an Orthodox Jewish conversion, they got married.”
The soldier continued, “My family ended up settling in Texas. My parents sent me to a Jewish school until my bar mitzvah. But as the bar mitzvah year approached, I was beyond miserable, because my family and I were the only people of color in the entire school, and in fact, the entire neighborhood. Even my siblings were not as dark as I, so I struggled quite a bit. At that time, the school was ill-prepared to deal with such a thing. So after my bar mitzvah, the principal said to my parents, ‘Listen, we have nothing to offer your son. We can’t make him happy, and he’s disrupting the classroom.’ Meanwhile, I told my parents that if they didn’t send me to public school, I would run away, and they acceded to my wishes. Over the course of high school, I more or less disconnected from my religion. I joined the military after high school, and that’s where things are now.”
This man had just disembarked from the plane, returning from a trip home on leave. While at home,
his uncle said to him, “Listen, you’re going back to Afghanistan. It’s very dangerous for you. These are your grandfather’s tefillin; we’ve had them checked recently. We’re not trying to push Judaism on you, but we’re just asking that you put on the tefillin every now and then so that G-d willing you’ll come home safe.” Out of respect for his grandfather, the soldier took the tefillin, not expecting to put them on. But upon seeing me in the terminal, he thought to himself, “This is quite remarkable that the first person I’m seeing off the plane is a Jewish chaplain.” With that in mind, he approached me to tell his story and ask me to help him put on tefillin.
Then and there, we put the tefillin on, and I started to open a siddur. Before I could open to the page of
Shema, he had recited the entire first paragraph by heart. Then he recited the second and third paragraph by heart—perfectly. He told me that the last time he had recited Shema while wearing tefillin was when he was 13 years old.
Whenever I tell this story, I always think about the power of the soul. The soul never forgets. When I am
speaking to younger people in particular, I emphasize the importance of treating everyone properly. Sadly, this man was disconnected from Judaism for so many years. But his Jewish essence was always there, and his soul expressed itself that day when he put on tefillin.
Originally published in the three weeks 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.