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Congregation B’nai Kabul

Most of the time, Larry Bazer runs a shul in Massachusetts. But for the past six months, he served in the military as the only rabbi in Afghanistan.

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At 4:00 in the morning on Aug. 5, 2011, Lt. Col. Larry Bazer, a 48-year-old from Massachusetts, stepped off the C-17 at Bagram Air Base, roughly 40 miles north of Kabul, Afghanistan. Unlike the hundreds of soldiers coming and going that day, Bazer didn’t carry a weapon. Instead he dragged a 100-lb. trunk that contained a Torah, a shofar, prayer books, and other religious items he would need during his deployment—the first in his 22-year military career—as a military chaplain and the sole rabbi to the Jewish soldiers in the country.

After a short flight aboard an old Russian helicopter run by a contracting agency, he arrived at his final destination: Camp Phoenix, a military base on the outskirts of Kabul, where his unit, the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 26th “Yankee” Brigade, had already been deployed. It was a Friday, so after a briefing with the base’s commanding officer, Bazer headed to the chapel to lead his first Shabbat service.

The 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.

Only four people showed up to Bazer’s first Shabbat service. One of the four was a Jewish first sergeant, who would later act as Bazer’s chaplain assistant when he traveled off the base; another was a contractor the rabbi had met during pre-deployment training. Together, those two formed the “nucleus of Jewish life” on base.

Camp Phoenix was a far cry from Temple Beth Sholom, the Conservative Jewish congregation of 265 families in Framingham, Mass., which Bazer leads in his civilian life. “Most of the time I live a life of a Conservative rabbi, teaching Conservative Judaism and practicing it and inspiring my congregants to do the same,” he said in a recent interview. “Here I was a rabbi to everyone, from traditional folks to Conservatives to Reform, Reconstructionists, non-believers, people interested in Judaism—you name it, that was my community.”

***

Bazer joined the U.S. Army in 1989 as a chaplain through a special program during his first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In addition to a lifelong fascination with the military that began with G.I. Joes as a kid, Bazer wanted to join the military in order to follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a Navy chaplain who served as a line officer in Vietnam and then as a chaplain in Beirut. “He was very big within our movement, and I wanted to be a Navy chaplain like him and be on aircraft carriers,” Bazer said. The Navy didn’t accept Bazer because he had had asthma as a child. Upon Resnicoff’s recommendation, he joined the Army in hopes of later transferring to the Navy. He never left.

But the decision to go to Afghanistan—like that of so many men and women—had its roots in 9/11. That morning, Bazer was at home in Long Island, writing a High Holy Day sermon as he waited for a man to arrive and install carpet. He watched the television as the first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. “Then the second plane hit,” Bazer remembered, “and that’s when everything changed.”

Bazer didn’t wait for a phone call. He packed a bag, said goodbye to his wife and two children, and sped into the city, reaching 90 miles per hour after passing a checkpoint on the Long Island Expressway, which was empty except for emergency vehicles.

He parked at a fire station in lower Manhattan and started walking toward Ground Zero on foot. He looked up to find his usual landmarks that helped him navigate the downtown area, but all he saw was smoke. He was a chaplain for both the New York National Guard and the New York offices of the FBI, and his job was to be there for soldiers or FBI employees who needed to speak to someone outside the rigid command structure.

On the Saturday night following the attacks, Bazer was standing at the Pit, the rubble where the World Trade Center once stood. At 2 a.m., a firefighter captain walked up to him. They started talking, and Bazer asked if he had lost anyone from his firehouse. No one from his firehouse, the firefighter said, but he pointed to the Pit and said he knew at least 10 people who were in there. He asked Bazer to say a prayer for them. “At that moment, in the vast darkness of what happened to that place, it was in the presence of God,” he said. “That’s what we do as military chaplains—in challenging situations from 9/11 or being in Afghanistan.”

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Sharon says:

Nice story. Would have been nice to see a photo of the talis described.

tk_in_TO says:

Y’shar koach, Rabbi Bazer.

Whit Richardson says:

Sharon,

I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

Rabbi Bazer has dozens of photos on the blog he kept during his deployment. If you go to this page (http://chbazer.posterous.com/archive/1/2012) and scroll about one quarter of the way down, you’ll see a series of photos that begins with one of him in his battle armor and blue menorah hat. If you look at the third photo in that series, Rabbi Bazer is wearing his camouflaged talit that an Afghan tailor made for him.

Best,
Whit

Welcome home, Rabbi! Thank you for your service.
Jan Schwartz
MetroWest Jewish Day School
Framingham, MA

Cloggie says:

Not to take away from all that Lt. Col. Bazer has done, but the headline is untrue. At least two Navy rabbis have been in Afghanistan during that time. One of whom is a close friend of mine.

Whit Richardson says:

Cloggie,

Thanks for the comment. I had no intention of taking away from your Navy friend’s service.

It is true the military flew in a few extra rabbis to help with the High Holy Days, and then again for Hanukkah, including a Navy rabbi who visited the southwest region to cover the Marines at Leatherneck, but according to Rabbi Bazer, he left right after the holidays. I assume your friend was one of these rabbis. Rabbi Bazer was the only full-time rabbi serving in Afghanistan, which is the premise the story was based on.

Best,
Whit

Gerri Kail says:

As a deployed Air Force officer and a member of Congregation B’nai Kabul, I must say that I felt very lucky having Rabbi Bazer here for my first 5 months of my deployment. As you can imagine, being here away from family is very hard and there is little else to look forward to than going home. However, with Rabbi Bazer here, I always looked forward to Shabbat where we would all be together for services, dinner, and camaraderie.
–Maj Gerri Kail, US Air Force

Shoshana Kaye says:

What a delightful article. These chaplains are so devoted, I admire them very much. It is an amazing organization and deserves everyone’s support. I contribute every year. A hearty Kol Akavod (sorry for the spelling) to all the Jewish Chaplains!

Rebecca Thorsen says:

As a spouse of a jewish marine officer serving in Africa, I would like to thank this Rabbi Chaplain and all the Rabbi Chaplains in service to this fine country of ours.

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Congregation B’nai Kabul

Most of the time, Larry Bazer runs a shul in Massachusetts. But for the past six months, he served in the military as the only rabbi in Afghanistan.