Rabbi brings Torah to Marines in Babylon

28 Jun 2003 | Sgt. Michael Sweet

On the banks of the Euphrates River, a region that was once the center of Jewish culture and study, Jewish Marines and soldiers got a rare chance to celebrate the Sabbath with one of only three military Rabbis' in theater. 

Army Capt. Avrohom Horovitz a chaplain with 3rd Battalion 27th Artillery Regiment of Ft. Bragg, NC., was invited up to Camp Babylon in Al Hillah from Camp Commando in Kuwait during the last week of June to minister to the Marines.

"I cannot believe I made it here," said Pfc. Jon B. Levine, an infantryman with L company 3rd Battalion 5th Marines. "The last time I got to go to services was back in March when I was at Commando."

While Horovitz began to unpack a cardboard box containing his pray books, Yarmulkes and miniature Torah, Levine recalled the challenges of traveling to the Babylon service from his base in Ad Diwaniyah, which takes hours to drive.

"I was supposed to get here on Friday, but I got bumped off a couple of helicopters," said Levine of Garland, Texas.  "I finally got here after they put together a three vehicle convoy just to get me here."

The Torah is a parchment scroll written by hand in Hebrew and contains the five books of Moses from the Bible  

Being the only Jewish Marine in a unit is not uncommon for most Jews that serve in the military.  Unlike Christian Marines, who can attend services weekly without much effort, Jewish servicemembers may find out that they have missed entire holidays because rabbis aren't as plentiful.

"I was pulling security in Baghdad in April," said Levine, a former Texas A & M student who chose Marine infantry after rejecting the Army's proposal to make him a medic. "I did not even know it was Passover."

Horovitz said since he cannot visit the troops as often as he would like, many times he will keep in contact with his flock through e-mail.

"I get questions all the time," said the rabbi, who grew up and studied in Jerusalem. 

He gets questions on wearing of the Yarmulke.  He tells his Marines and soldiers that they are authorized to wear the religious scull cap.

Those wanting to obey the Jewish dietary laws find it difficult in the field.  He explains that you can get kosher meals through the supply system.

He also works with unit commanders so Marines can keep the Sabbath.  Horovitz said that one way is to work with the chain of command to allow soldiers or Marines to trade guard duty shifts so it will not conflict with the holy day.

Being one of the few rabbis in theater also gives Horovitz an opportunity not only to represent the military, but also act as an envoy for his faith. Since coming to Iraq, he has met an Islamic cleric who is a caretaker for an ancient synagogue that is now being used by Muslims for prayer.

"You can still see the Hebrew writing on the walls," said Horovitz.  "It was an amazing experience to go there."

Years of persecution in Iraq have driven almost all the Jews from Iraq, according to Horovitz. The region of Babylon was once the center of Jewish study.  The Babylon Talmud, a Jewish book of commentary was written near here.

He, along with other chaplains visited the tomb of the profit Ezekiel, who Horovitz described as the source of hope for Jews when they were taken out of Israel during the height of the Babylonian empire.

"Fifty years ago, Kiffel was a Jewish Market," said Horovitz, describing village around the tomb of Ezekiel.  "After the state of Israel was created, many were forced to leave here."

Though he is the only Jewish chaplain for Marines serving in both Iraq and Kuwait, he is a globetrotting man of the cloth.  Horovitz is a unit chaplain first as well as a rabbi, and spends most of his time taking care of his unit, he said.  However, like the profit Ezekiel, he brings hope not only to the troops in his battalion, but to everyone serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom

Carrying some kosher rations and a new prayer book that their Rabbi gave to them, Levine and some other Marines smile as they walk into the darkness of night at Babylon.

" I am just glad I got to go to services," said Levine.  "This is one of the few stories I can tell people when I go home."