JWB Jewish Chaplains Council director Rabbi Irving Elson

Helping Jews in the US military have a happy Hanukkah

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Helping Jews in the US military have a happy Hanukkah

JWB Jewish Chaplains Council director Rabbi Irving Elson

When Hanukkah begins, Jews in the U.S. military stationed across the nation and world will be able to celebrate the holiday while serving their country.

The JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, based in New York, is working with three partner organizations – the Wolper Foundation, KosherTroops, and the Jewish Soldiers Foundation – to send up to 120 care packages, according to JWB director Rabbi Irving Elson. Care packages sent to these service members contain gifts that will illuminate the Festival of Lights: tin menorahs with candles and Hanukkah gelt.

In 2020, these care packages may have an extra resonance because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“This year, there’s probably not going to be a lot of public menorah lighting,” Elson said in a phone interview. “We’re encouraging a lot of home observance for single service members, and we encourage getting together in very, very small groups to light the hanukkiah. Some of our chaplains are having public outdoor Hanukkah lightings. Some of them are doing it through virtual media, Zoom or some other program.”

The preparation of care packages has been affected by coronavirus concerns.

“What’s been a bigger challenge is specifically to get volunteers to come and help create packages we try to put out,” Elson said. “It’s not that people don’t volunteer. A group of people in an enclosed space doing it this way is challenging.”

For Hanukkah, packages are being sent at the outset of a busy holiday season. Elson said that while it is only a guess, he does not think that this will cause any delays.

“It’s mere speculation on my part, but I would say maybe it’s a little easier this year,” he said. “Hanukkah [Dec. 10-18] is well before Christmas. Hopefully the Hanukkah packages will be put out long before the big [sending of] Christmas presents.”

He also said that the number of Hanukkah packages has decreased, “mainly because of the military draw-down in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Not as many people are deployed.”

There are other organizations that send Hanukkah care packages to service members, including the the Aleph Institute. Packages from the Aleph Institute, which is based in Miami, contain a tin menorah, a box of candles, a dreidel and chocolates.

The veterans departments in Peabody and Salem are not sending care packages this year, nor is the Jewish War Veterans. Peabody veterans services director Steve Patten wrote in an email correspondence that there is no funding for care packages this year, and that Peabody is also seeking donations to help pay for the cost of the World War II monument that was destroyed last week.

Local veteran Donna Lehman of Peabody remembers celebrating both Passover and Hanukkah while serving in Iraq during the early years of the Iraq War. She received a Hanukkah care package of a menorah, candles and a Happy Hanukkah card, all of which she described as very meaningful. For both holiday celebrations she attended, for Passover and Hanukkah, the venue was unconventional – a former palace of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

Under Hussein, Lehman recalled, “Jews were not allowed in Iraq, let alone Saddam’s palace.”

During Elson’s years in the military – which included his becoming the highest-ranking Jewish chaplain in the Navy – he was able to celebrate Hanukkah in diverse locations, including Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan, in particular, was very, very cool,” he recalled. “It was nice to get together in a small chapel with service members and light the hanukkiah. We even got the mess hall to make jelly doughnuts, sufganiyot.

“It’s just a very special time,” Elson said. “It’s also special because the service members are very glad they’re remembered … The military goes out of its way so rabbis on larger bases can celebrate.”

Today, Elson is the head of an organization founded as the Jewish Welfare Board in 1917, just three days after the United States entered World War I.

“The mission of the Jewish Welfare Board then was to help America win the war while providing spiritual support for service members of the Jewish faith,” he said. “It’s our mission now, Jewish life for Jews in the military.”

With so much going virtual this year, even in the military, the JWB has refocused its Hanukkah programming. On each of the eight nights, a different chaplain will talk about Hanukkah and sing holiday songs online. Elson notes that unlike previous in-person services, those watching online will get to see chaplains not only from different denominations but different branches of the military. The JWB is also serving as a clearinghouse for information about menorah lighting times across 14 to 15 time zones. The Aleph Institute is having an online holiday concert by a group called the Maccabeats next Wednesday.

Asked how he will be celebrating the holiday, Elson said, “I’m following the advice of the government. I’m going to be home, trying to [do] the best we can with my family.”

“The military is fighting COVID just like everybody else,” he reflected, adding with pride that “the military has not diminished in being able to do its regular [work]. COVID or no COVID, there are still enemies out there [against the] U.S.. Service members are still out there protecting the U.S.,” including soldiers, sailors – and National Guard members potentially involved in a vaccine rollout.

“We still have troops around the world,” Elson said. “We have extra prayers for the military.”

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