When Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson blew the shofar this past Rosh Hashanah, it reverberated throughout one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. More than 100 Jewish members of the U.S. forces stationed in Iraq attended the High Holiday services at the former Iraqi dictator’s Baghdad compound.
They seemed shocked and awed, not least by the echo.
Then under a late afternoon sun, the group performed the customary Tashlich ceremony outside the palace, casting pieces of bread representing sins into a private lake once owned by the Iraqi dictator’s sons, Uday and Qusay.
"It was a gorgeous setting," said Ackerson, who is from Baltimore. "It tells me we can actually put these places to good use."
As the senior rabbinic chaplain for the U.S. operation in Iraq, Ackerson said he wanted this High Holiday season to start with a spiritual bang for the estimated 500 Jews among the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait.
It seems to have worked.
"One sergeant told me it was the most meaningful Rosh Hashanah he’s had in 20 years," Ackerson said of the palace services.
There were also services for Jewish service personnel in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, which drew some 50 people, and two services in Kuwait, where U.S. forces also are stationed.
American donors enhanced the holiday celebrations for the Jews serving in the Gulf. Three New York synagogues donated four Torah scrolls, each insured for $10,000, and one Maryland congregation sent prayer books and Hebrew learning material for the holiday events, which will include Yom Kippur and Sukkot services.
The Torahs capped a months-long civilian grass-roots effort dubbed "Operation Apples and Honey" by the Jewish Educators Network of New York. The group also sent 1,200 kosher dinners and 800 bagel-and-lox lunches to the troops to complement their usual ready-to-eat meals, along with prayer books, books on Judaism and ritual objects such as Kiddush Cups.
Maj. David Rosner, a U.S. Marine who served in the first Gulf War in addition to the current conflict, said Jewish troops deeply appreciate such efforts.
But not all Jewish armed personnel made it to the holiday services.
One Jewish GI who had planned to attend the Baghdad service on Rosh Hashanah was Spc. Matthew Boyer, 24, a member of the field artillery unit of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, 3rd Brigade, which is guarding oil fields north of the city.
But Boyer — who participated in the mission that hunted down Uday and Qusay — was called to a special mission instead. During that mission, a friend was fatally shot in the neck.
Others Jewish servicemen were able to come home, at least briefly, for the High Holidays.
Kayitz Finley, 21, a marine corporal from Los Angeles, is at home on 30 days’ leave. The son of ex-Marine Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles, the young Finley said he has encountered all kinds of hostilities in Iraq.
In his first of many firefights during the war, Finley recalled lying in a ditch and watching a rocket-propelled grenade fly over his head "so close you could see the engravings on it. But I wiped away all the fear, picked up my rifle and just went to work."