January 21, 2019

Yom Kippur in Afghanistan

Every other morning, Army Capt. Nathan Brooks wakes up between 4 and 4:30 a.m. to go for a three-mile run before the intense heat of the Afghan desert sets in. 

Following his daily exercise at Bagram Airfield, Brooks does two things that he said have most helped him feel connected to God since he deployed for Afghanistan in April — he wraps tefillin and davens Shacharit, the morning prayer service.

“That’s my thing that I hold onto,” said Brooks, a 33-year-old, single Orthodox Jew from Los Angeles. 

Serving abroad, Brooks hasn’t been able to maintain the same level of religious observance that he did back home, where he regularly attended two Orthodox synagogues, B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Beth Jacob.

On Shabbat, because the military cannot take a day of rest in a war zone, Brooks still must complete his daily tasks for the Army. And for Yom Kippur this year, Brooks does not anticipate that he will be able to entirely fast.

“This is a war going on,” he said. “You do what you can.”

Sitting in his quarters in Afghanistan on a recent evening — morning in Los Angeles — Brooks spoke with the Journal via videoconference about his experience as an officer and an observant Jew serving the United States military for 16 years. (He joined when he was 17.)

In his role in charge of the 1106th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group (TASMG) unit, Brooks has numerous responsibilities. He flies a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during maintenance test flights and manages “depot level maintenance” activities, which refers to the issue and repair of Army cargo and helicopters.

In terms of fasting, Brooks said that although he would be unable to perform his duties if he did not eat or drink on fast days such as Yom Kippur or Tisha b’Av, he makes sure to restrict himself to water and bland foods. 

“As a pilot, particularly in the heat of Kandahar [where he was previously stationed] for Tisha b’Av, it was maybe 114 degrees, and I still had to perform and function as a soldier,” he said. “When you are an officer in charge, sometimes the needs of your unit and your troops have to come before your own personal needs.”

Despite the impossibility of remaining strictly observant in Afghanistan, while Brooks was in Kandahar he and two other Orthodox Jews met regularly on Friday evenings without the benefit of a Jewish chaplain to pray, study Torah and make the best Shabbat dinner that kosher ready-to-eat meals (MREs) can provide. 

MREs, even the kosher ones, are not exactly traditional Shabbat fare. The modest meals include dried cranberries, cereal, sunflower seeds and either a vegetarian dish, a beef stew or chicken with noodles. Not much variety — on Shabbat or any other day of the week. 

“You eat those over and over again; it gets kind of old,” Brooks said.

Although the Army usually only provides Brooks and his fellow Jewish soldiers with matzah for religious meals, organizations like Project MOT often send challah in care packages for Jewish soldiers. In fact, sometimes there are so many packages from Jewish organizations — as many as five or six per week — that non-Jewish soldiers have asked incredulously if he knows the people sending him so many packages.

Since Brooks moved to Bagram Airfield a couple of weeks ago, he has spent Friday nights in the company of Rabbi David Goldstrom, an Orthodox chaplain who will be serving in Bagram for a few more weeks, returning to his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., shortly after the end of the High Holy Days.

A 47-year-old New Jersey native, Goldstrom leads Friday night services every week. He organized services for Rosh Hashanah, and will do the same on Yom Kippur, for which he hopes to have a minyan

Goldstrom’s description of Shabbat and holidays at Bagram has little in common with how they are celebrated in America. For one, even though Goldstrom is able to observe Shabbat in Afghanistan, his attire remains a standard Army uniform. And attacks from the Taliban remain an almost daily disturbance.

“I may have to go to a bunker because of indirect fire, mortar attacks or rocket attacks,” Goldstrom said. “They do attack us almost daily.” 

Goldstrom said that when an alarm on the base rings, he and other soldiers have to scramble quickly. It can happen during weekly drills, and it can happen during Shabbat services.

“An alarm goes off, and you hit the ground or head for a bunker as quickly as possible and wait for the all clear,” he said.

While serving as a chaplain in Afghanistan — away from his wife and two sons — is certainly a challenge, Goldstrom said that one of his favorite recurring moments is when he first meets a Jewish soldier.

“When they do see a Jewish chaplain, when they see the tablet and Star of David on my helmet, on my uniform, their faces light up.”

Come January, when Brooks likely will be back in Los Angeles, he plans to either continue flying Black Hawk helicopters as part of the California Army National Guard or return to school to further pursue a graduate degree in either geographic information science or in emergency planning.

Despite all the challenges involved with being an observant Jew in the military — especially when serving abroad — Brooks believes it’s all worth it.

“I think it’s really important that we have ourselves represented in the military,” he said. “As soldiers, we have a lot to give.”