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By: CH (LTC) Shlomo Shulman, USA

I am not the first in my family to serve. My dad was drafted into the Army a long time ago. I remember him telling me Army stories, but that was not what initially inspired me to join. My military journey began in 2006, while my family and I were living in Boston, and I was doing community development for an old synagogue there, trying to revitalize the Jewish neighborhood. I happened across the US Army Chaplain website one night, and out of curiosity, requested an info packet. Almost as soon as I hit enter on the keyboard, I decided it wasn’t for me, as it didn’t sound like the job was something one could manage as an Orthodox Jew. I put the whole thing out of my mind. But a few weeks later, a chaplain called and said the Army actually needs Jewish chaplains, and my concern about being Orthodox would be “no problem at all.” He connected me with some Jewish chaplains and after I spoke with them, I realized that you actually can do this as an Orthodox Jew.

After getting all my background and medical paperwork together, I left for the chaplain basic course in January 2007. Just a couple weeks after graduating, I deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division for 15 months during the surge of troops ordered by President Bush. By the time I redeployed to Savannah, Georgia, I had already been in the Army for close to two years; yet I still hadn’t even once stood in a battalion formation or reported for physical fitness training in the morning – I had absolutely no idea how the regular, non-deployed Army worked!

During my time in Iraq (2007-2008), it was clear that the entire Army had been stretched thin between Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt my experience was unique because it was my first deployment. For most people around me, it was their second or third deployment. I felt heading to Iraq straight out of the basic course was a great way to learn how to be a chaplain: from the frying pan into the fire.

I remember one incident at nearly the one-year mark. A young soldier in my battalion had just returned from his midtour leave at home and was having a very difficult time readjusting to life back at our camp at Baghdad Airport. He just kept moping around and sounding more and more miserable until he pulled a loaded handgun out and threatened to shoot himself if he wasn’t sent home for good.

Someone ran to get me, and as I came upon the scene, by then dozens of soldiers had bunched up outside the door of the trailer where the soldier was standing his ground, waving the pistol. Some people saw me making my way through the crowd. They started to shout, “Make way! Make way! The chaplain is here!”

I was in a state of shock, as I realized right then that my education had given me absolutely zero skills to prepare for this moment. The standoff lasted for a couple of hours, with me face-to-face just a few feet away from this unhinged soldier and his loaded weapon. But thank G-d I managed to find the calmness and soft voice he needed to hear, until he finally gave up and talked it out with the behavioral health doctor.

I ended up returning to Iraq another four times over the following 10 years. Now we have 100,000 US troops in Europe, but that’s a very different theater. For one thing, service members can stroll off base without risking their lives and go tour Europe on their days off. Iraq wasn’t World War II or Vietnam, but it was still a combat zone, and for me it was a terrific way to learn the ropes quickly.
I currently serve as the chaplain for Army Support Activity – Black Sea, which has bases in Romania and Bulgaria.

Our base used to be a sleepy little place until the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, and a few hundred US soldiers would cycle through here on training missions. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thousands of combat soldiers suddenly arrived at the base on nine month deployments. When I arrived in October 2022, Canadians and Romanians were already here, running air policing missions. Since then, the Canadians have been replaced by Italians, and a French Army unit arrived as well.

Our base functions like a small town as we continue to grow into a more established presence. The garrison staff is responsible for housing, feeding, and supplying the troops deployed here, providing for their daily needs. My job as the chaplain is to ensure everyone’s Constitutional right to the free exercise of their religion—or lack of religion—is upheld.

Our chapel schedule is a veritable religious smorgasbord: Protestant, Lutheran, Mormon, Islamic, Jewish, grief recovery, Bible study—you name it, it’s on the weekly schedule—even Hindu! We also started AA meetings for people looking for sobriety support.

Just recently, a group of newly-arrived pagan soldiers met with me to discuss establishing a weekly gathering, complete with torches and a Norse hammer similar to what you see in Viking paintings. They’d even picked out a spot in the trees to hold their service. I sent them to the base fire department to request permission to use open flames.

The next day, a Muslim soldier asked if I knew how he and a few others could make it to a mosque in a nearby city for a holiday that was about to start. I told him if their own units couldn’t figure out how to get them there, I’d drive them myself. While I don’t personally lead or attend these other services (I have all I can do just to get myself to shul on time), the Chaplain Corps mission is to “perform or provide” religious support for everybody. If we can’t perform it, then we provide it from somewhere else.

Spring 2023 made for an interesting holiday schedule when Easter, Ramadan, and Passover all coincided with each other for the first time in 30 years. The chapel was quite busy. A US Army Catholic priest flew in from Ft. Liberty (formerly Ft. Bragg), North Carolina, to lead services at various US locations throughout Eastern Europe. He stopped by our chapel to introduce himself, and we got to talking a bit. I recognized his strong Philadelphia accent, coming from an area not far from where my wife grew up. I asked him how he’d ended up a Catholic priest, and he explained that he’d been adopted by a devout Catholic family. Later in life, he connected with his biological mother, who told him she was Jewish. It was one of those rare—yet not as uncommon as you’d think—moments in the military where the Catholic priest is actually Jewish! I invited him to the upcoming seder, but alas, you can’t make this stuff up: he had to lead services at a distant location the following day.

Regardless, I was glad that the schedule was really full of activities. I felt the results of my efforts when soldiers thanked me for helping them arrange events, break fasts, services, and more for their holidays. That was a proud moment for me. As a Jewish chaplain at a European garrison with multinational troops, responsible for arranging religious support for everyone, I felt it was critical that I take care of all the other religious denominations, including some that often get overlooked.
I arrived in Romania in October 2022. After looking at my surroundings, I saw that Bucharest is about a 2.5-hour drive away; the Bulgarian border is about an hour south; and the Danube River marking the Ukrainian border is only about 45 minutes north.

I figured it would be a long time before I saw a Jewish community again. However, when the war in Ukraine kicked off on a Friday night in February 2022, a major part of the Jewish community of Odessa, including the rabbis, jumped onto a convoy of seven or eight buses, which drove around for 27 hours all through Shabbat until they crossed the Romanian border and settled in the little resort town of Neptun Beach, about 45 minutes from my base.

I was invited to stay there for Shabbat a few weeks after I arrived. I couldn’t believe my eyes, seeing 700 800 Jews who’d basically recreated their Odessa community right there in a tired-looking hotel on the Black Sea. They had set up Jewish schools, a shul, orphanage, and even their pizza shop, hot dog stand, and kosher market.

Without the ability to cook in the hotel rooms, the dining hall had been turned into a giant sort of Pesach hotel. Here, for 14 months, the entire community was served three meals a day, plus Shabbos and Yom Tov, with no holding back. Fresh challah, fish, meat, everything you could imagine, piled high on the tables for hundreds of people every day for over a year. I thought I’d died and gone to deployment heaven!

Every few weeks I’d treat myself to a Shabbat down in Neptun Beach, staying through Sunday. But once they realized the war wasn’t going to end anytime soon, the community relocated to Bucharest just before Pesach and settled into a newly constructed block of apartments. Now it’s quite a bit more difficult to visit. Although I miss the convenience of having them close by, I am glad they finally left the hotels and have a bit more space to call home.

Without the ease and convenience of having a Jewish community nearby, I often get creative when it comes to kosher food. Once, I received a text from a US Air Force C-130 pilot saying the plane would soon be landing at the airfield at my base. He wrote, “Can you meet on the runway? I have your food.”

I was very confused at first, but it turned out a friend of mine in Germany had bought a bunch of frozen chicken at the commissary at Ramstein Air Force Base and gave it to the pilot heading to our area. We served the chicken for the festive seder meal on Pesach, and I had to explain how the birds had arrived by special delivery, from Ramstein to Romania.
A few months back, I was in the mess hall when I heard, “Shalom Aleichem!” I turned around and saw a Romanian soldier in line for his food. He pulled out a Magen David necklace and told me his mother is Jewish, though his father isn’t. It struck me that he must be one of only a few Jewish soldiers in the Romanian Army—if not the only one.

This leads into Romania’s turbulent Jewish history. Romania’s relationship with the country’s Jews has a complicated history, as most European countries do. The country aligned itself with the Nazis early on as World War II broke out. However, the king of Romania was partial to the Jews and tried to do right by them. He was in Bucharest when the war started, and he was able to protect the Jews, at least in the capital.

There had been a huge Jewish population in the mountainous border region of Transylvania; author Elie Wiesel and many other well known figures came from there. Elsewhere in Romania, especially Cluj, formerly known as Kloisenberg, and Ias (Yash), there were very large populations of Jews. The Jewish population in Romania back then was almost exclusively Chassidic, and sadly the Jewish populations in Transylvania and Ias were almost completely brutalized and destroyed. About a year before the war ended, there was a coup in Romania, after which the country pulled out of the war.

Even in nearby Constanța, the southeastern-most corner of Romania, near the border with Bulgaria and the Black Sea, there is an old, dilapidated synagogue that was used up until the 1990s. The roof caved in so it is no longer safe to go inside. But it’s near a mosque, which shows the Turkish Muslim influence. There’s even a small Jewish population in Constanța, about 35-40 older Jews who still get together now and then, and most recently attended a communal seder together. Because of its proximity to Israel and cheap vacation options, Romania has become quite the destination for Israeli tourists. I was in Bucharest for Shabbat of Chanukah, at the Chabad of Bucharest, and there must have been about 150 Israelis in attendance at the meals.

When I’m not serving, I’ve enjoyed exploring the region in my spare time or walking on the Black Sea beach. But I try to get back and forth to Israel, where I live permanently, as much as possible, and my family has been able to visit a few times already. All things considered, this assignment has been one of my favorites.

Originally published in the Tishrei 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.