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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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In Afghanistan, Bazer, who just returned home from six months in the country, says he wore “three yarmulkes.” The first was as chaplain of his National Guard unit. The second was as the Kabul Base Cluster Command Chaplain, which meant he oversaw several chaplains responsible for the religious activities of roughly 10,000 soldiers spread over eight bases in the Kabul region. Because he was the only rabbi in the country, his third was as the leader of the Jewish military community in Afghanistan.

As the country’s sole rabbi, Bazer went to different bases to perform Shabbat services. In early September, he traveled to a larger base in central Kabul, where the Jewish community had adopted the informal name of Congregation B’nai Kabul. The base was only 15 minutes away, but no trip “outside the wire” was simple. Bazer, who is about 6 feet tall and has white hair, would don his battle armor, Kevlar helmet, and protective glasses and mount one of the large armored fighting vehicles that would take him into the city.

The turnout for services at Congregation B’nai Kabul, which had a good lay leader, was the best Bazer experienced in the country: an average of between 12 and 18 people. Other bases were not so well-attended. At one base outside Mazir-a-Sharif, only one person showed up for Bazer’s Hanukkah service—and was 50 minutes late at that.

Suffice it to say, there aren’t a lot of Jewish soldiers in Afghanistan. What Bazer found, though, is that his presence often enticed people to come out of the woodwork and identify with their Jewishness. For Hanukkah, Bazer designed a 5-foot wooden menorah with energy-efficient lightbulbs that contract carpenters on the base—mostly local Afghans—built. It stood in the base’s central square during the holidays, right next to a Christmas tree. During the holiday, Bazer walked around wearing a large, blue menorah-like hat with a large Star of David and orange fabric flames. At one point, a French soldier asked to have his picture taken with Bazer in front of the menorah so he could send it to his Jewish mother.

One the highlights of his chaplaincy, Bazer said, was holding a bar mitzvah for a 23-year-old soldier who had missed out when he was 13. The ceremony was held on the first day of Hanukkah and was a coalescing event for the Jewish military community in Kabul. Between 35 and 40 people attended the ceremony—including the base’s non-Jewish commanding general. Half a dozen members of Congregation B’nai Kabul made the trip to Camp Phoenix in an armed convoy. The vast majority of attendants weren’t Jewish. “A lot of them thought, ‘Hey does he also need to get that little operation?’ You know, a circumcision,” Bazer recalled. “I said ‘No, he already did that’—so that was a running joke.”

When the lieutenant finished his Torah reading, Bazer gave the crowd an order that they could understand: “Fire for effect!” At that, everyone threw leftover Halloween candy at the new bar mitzvah.

***

Bazer insisted he never faced discrimination for being a Jew during his time in Afghanistan. Sure, his yarmulke caused some weird looks from local Afghans on the base, but he received some of the same stares in the mess hall when there were new people who didn’t know there was a rabbi on base.

He even found an Afghan tailor to make him a tallit in his uniform’s multi-cam pattern. It says Chaplain Bazer, OEF—for “Operation Enduring Freedom”—Task Force Yankee. “I think for him, the fact that I was Jewish didn’t matter. It was a job to do,” Bazer said. “I did try to have him make yarmulkes in the pattern, but he just couldn’t get that right.”

On Camp Phoenix, Bazer also got to know the Jordanian military liaison, and the two would often eat meals together. “Where else would an American Jewish officer and a Jordanian Muslim officer be able to sit down, have lunch, and talk about our families?”

Though Bazer’s particular unit arrived back in Massachusetts in February without any casualties, it didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous. On Oct. 29, 2011, a suicide bomber rammed a car full of explosives into an armored bus from Camp Phoenix. Five coalition troops, eight coalition civilian employees, and Lucy, a chocolate lab who served as a stress-relief dog at the base, were killed. Bazer helped counsel soldiers affected by the attack and organized the memorial service that was held on base for the victims.

***

This week, Bazer rejoined his Massachusetts synagogue. He’s been home less than a month, but he’s already been in touch with his first sergeant, who is planning to attend services at Congregation Beth Sholom tomorrow.

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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.

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