The US Military Rabbi of Camp Phoenix and Kabul

The Jewish online magazine Tablet covers the story of US Army Chaplain (LtCol) Larry Bazer, who recently returned from a deployment as the “only Jewish chaplain in Afghanistan.”

The article contains some interesting commentaries on the chaplaincy in general, as well as some specifics related to life as a Jewish chaplain:

The [Camp Phoenix] chapel, said Bazer, “was a cozy little place”: a small, nondescript room built of plywood. During the day it was devoid of any religious symbols, but during the evenings a few crosses would turn it into a Protestant chapel, or some icons into a Catholic church. On Friday nights, candles and challah—sent each month by the “challah lady,” a Long Island Jewish woman—made it a synagogue.

Chaplain Bazer’s congregations varied from none to nearly 20 as he traveled Afghanistan as the only Jewish chaplain.

In a related anecdote, it seems local Afghan contractors — who were presumably Muslim — were more than happy to help produce the materials to assist the Jewish officer:

For Hanukkah, Bazer designed a 5-foot wooden menorah with energy-efficient lightbulbs that contract carpenters on the base—mostly local Afghans—built. It stood in the base’s central square during the holidays, right next to a Christmas tree. During the holiday, Bazer walked around wearing a large, blue menorah-like hat with a large Star of David and orange fabric flames. At one point, a French soldier asked to have his picture taken with Bazer in front of the menorah so he could send it to his Jewish mother.

(Pictures of the Menorah and Chaplain Bazer’s Menorah-hat are available on his blog.)  The chaplain even got to hold a bar mitzvah for a 23 year old soldier — with nearly 40 people attending the ceremony, even traveling in armed convoys especially for the event.

As to Chaplain Bazer’s service:

Bazer insisted he never faced discrimination for being a Jew during his time in Afghanistan. Sure, his yarmulke caused some weird looks from local Afghans on the base, but he received some of the same stares in the mess hall when there were new people who didn’t know there was a rabbi on base.
He even found an Afghan tailor to make him a tallit in his uniform’s multi-cam pattern…“I think for him, the fact that I was Jewish didn’t matter. It was a job to do,” Bazer said. “I did try to have him make yarmulkes in the pattern, but he just couldn’t get that right.”

Chaplain Bazer even had regular lunches with the Islamic Jordanian military liaison.

Chaplain Bazer’s tour in Afghanistan wasn’t trumpeted by the military, but his presence and service in the theater continues the theme often repeated here:  The US military does an admirable job in its efforts to protect the religious free exercise of the troops it deploys, even minority faiths, and even faiths who find themselves in countries that might be considered ‘hostile’ to their beliefs.