When Jeffrey Blonder of Swampscott was serving in Afghanistan during the War on Terror, he could take some comfort in knowing that he could still celebrate Passover.
Blonder, who is now the department commander for the Jewish War Veterans of Massachusetts, took part in a Seder at Bagram Air Force Base, located in northeastern Afghanistan. The Aleph Institute, a program of Chabad that helps Jews in the U.S. military, sent kosher meals and wine.
“It was a great feeling to be able to enjoy the comradeship of my fellow Jews,” Blonder said. “I was fortunate my wife sent me a lot of Passover supplies.”
For American Jews serving their country, there are organizations and individuals who work to ensure that they can have a Passover Seder wherever they are stationed, whether in the U.S. or across the globe. That holds true even in the most challenging of times, such as the Cold War, the War on Terror, the Iraq War and the current coronavirus pandemic.
When they served in the military, Alan and Donna Lehman of Peabody had the opportunity to celebrate Passover in global hotspots at key moments in recent U.S. history. Alan Lehman is the commander of the JWV North Shore Post 220 and a retired Air Force colonel. Donna Lehman, an Iraq War veteran, is a retired Army nurse and lieutenant colonel.
Donna Lehman was deployed to the Middle East in February 2003, ahead of the Iraq War. She served there for 18 months, coming back just before 2005. She remembers celebrating Passover in Saddam Hussein’s palace in April 2004.
“Jews were not favored at all [under Hussein],” she said. “To be in Saddam’s palace, being Jewish, was an incredible experience. The leadership when I was there was wonderful. The rabbi was from Connecticut. He actually coordinated a lot of it, getting Jews together there and conducting the Seder.”
It was a dramatic contrast from the previous year in Iraq. By Passover 2004, she said, “There was less fighting and casualties,” she said. “We did have the opportunities. Earlier on, there was too much activity [to worship together].”
During the Cold War, Alan Lehman was stationed in Korea from in 1978 for 12 months. He was a Jewish lay leader at Osan Air Base, where he received a Passover care package from a New York-based military aid organization for Jewish servicemembers. He also participated in two Seders at the U.S. Army Retreat Center in Seoul, presided over by an Orthodox Jewish Army chaplain. “It was a wonderful traditional Seder like I was used to.” Lehman said about his time in Seoul.
With the current coronavirus health emergency, the Department of Defense has instituted travel restrictions, including prohibiting all official domestic travel by its servicemembers and their families through May 11, with possible exceptions for what it termed “compelling cases.”
Still, for current Jewish servicemembers unable to travel for Passover, there are still options for a Seder.
The Aleph Institute, a Chabad program that assists Jewish servicemembers, is trying to help. Rabbi Elie Estrin, the military personnel liaison for the Aleph Institute, told the Jewish Journal that as far as he is concerned, the numbers of requests for Passover supplies “are going to spike.”
The Aleph Institute expects to assist 4,500 servicemembers and another 10,000 of their family members for the holiday. Packages can include regular and shmurah matzah, grape juice, bouillon cubes and a Seder plate with everything except romaine lettuce. People can also receive haggadahs and an instructional DVD.
“We’re still getting in orders now,” said Estrin, who is based in Miami. However, “the later the order, the less likely they’ll get the supplies they need,” he said.
Estrin believes his role is to “take care of individual servicemembers as well as chaplains,” making sure they have everything they need. This goes on throughout the year, with the Aleph Institute sending everything from books and Jewish calendars to packages for the High Holidays. He said the organization assists Jewish servicemembers “no matter what rank, no matter what base.”
An Air Force Reserve chaplain, Estrin is a native of Providence, R.I. His wife, Chaya Rochel Karp, is originally from Sharon. He said he recently received a thank-you note from a Massachusetts servicemember whom the institute helped celebrate Purim while stationed in Alaska.
“Wherever we’re requested, we’ll send,” Estrin said.
To inquire about Passover packages for Jewish servicemembers, individuals can contact Elie Estrin at email@example.com.