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I'm in Hawaii, He's in Iraq: Why Are We Doing This?

I'm in Hawaii, He's in Iraq: Why Are We Doing This?


It's been 190 days since my husband, Rabbi Captain Shmuel Felzenberg, left from our base in Hawaii to Kuwait and eventually to Iraq. Not that I am counting. Nor do I know the very exact amount of days (and minutes) that remain until his anticipated return in February, 2005. Even if I did, it wouldn't matter much, as these deployments always seem to get delayed and the only way to not be disappointed is to not have any expectations.

But it's not so easy when you are planning your first Bar-Mitzvah for your oldest child and must make all the decisions on your own. Granted, it may seem a bit petty to track him down in Iraq for his opinion on the invitations, but sometimes these details seem to be important.

Ultimately, it is all part of the territory of being married to someone serving in the US Army. And I must say, from the outset, that I don't believe there is any woman or US citizen who could be prouder of the job and role that her husband is serving.

It's funny, because people don't necessarily expect to hear such patriotic statements coming from someone like me. You see, we're not one of those "military families"; in fact, no one in my family ever served in the army. I was raised as an Orthodox Jew in New Jersey, where I worked hard on my academics in Chabad schools my entire life.

So you are probably wondering about my husband. He, too, was raised in an Orthodox home, became involved with Chabad a little later in life, learned in the Morristown Yeshivah, the Rabbinical College of America, and continued on to get his rabbinical ordination from Kfar Chabad in Israel. Also not exactly the type of guy you'd expect to be serving in Iraq.

But I guess when something is truly right for you, no matter how seemingly impractical or out of the ordinary, you find yourself doing what you are meant to do. And without question, my husband is meant to be in Iraq right now, serving his country and serving as a Kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of G‑d's name) for the entire world to see.

From the time we were first married, I remember my husband talking about wanting to join the army. He thought it was a tremendous opportunity to experience new things and use his outreach and rabbinical skills. At first, I didn't think it was something he would seriously pursue, but over the years he kept mentioning it and I saw it was something he deeply desired. After some time I finally told him that he either had to join or he had to stop bringing it up. He decided to join. That was five years ago.

The biggest question we are asked is "why?" Why would you give up a comfortable life to live on an army base? Why would you move out of a religious environment and neighborhood to a place where your children will have few, if any, Jewish friends? Why would your husband risk his life to be a chaplain in Iraq when he could be a rabbi in virtually any community? And why would you be supportive of all of this?

Granted, all good questions. Yet, in our opinion, our answer is pretty good too. Why? Because as Jews we were created to be a light unto the nations, to illuminate the darkness, and to sanctify G‑d's name wherever and however we can. And that, I believe, is exactly what my husband is doing, and by extension, we, his family, are doing it as well, living on the base.

Shmuel's position in the army is as Chaplain. What this means practically is that he is responsible for taking care of the spiritual well-being of the soldiers in his unit, which currently number about 1000. His job is three-fold: he advises the Command on ethics and the proper way of helping soldiers; he provides spiritual, religious or general counseling for soldiers in need; and he is responsible for arranging religious ceremonies or services. Every chaplain functions both within their faith, and as a unit chaplain. Currently, there are only eight active Jewish chaplains total, and in the entire Middle East there is only one active duty Jewish chaplain (though the army is working on arranging visiting chaplains for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Shmuel has actually made quite a reputation for himself with his daily non-denominational inspirational gathering, which includes the recitation of psalms, and is intended to give each and every soldier the strength and spiritual boost for another difficult day in Iraq, far away from family and comfort. Although he has had some wonderful experiences with some of the Jewish soldiers throughout the years, he is currently assigned to a unit in which there is not a single Jew.

What we have found through our service is that the more we try to help and give to others, the more the US Army works to help us and make our lives as comfortable as possible. For example, when Shmuel recently needed to travel to Afghanistan for a number of weeks, everything possible was done by the Army to ensure that he wouldn't need to travel on Shabbat.

Because of the way Shmuel behaves and respects others, he too is showered with respect. Every year, all military personnel are ranked. Shmuel was warned not to expect the highest rating, since the commanders, each of whom has a limited number of high rankings to give out, often reserve these high ratings for the line officers, and not for chaplains or other positions. Yet Shmuel has received the highest rating for the last four years.

Another recent accomplishment is the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) award he received for "Chaplain of the Year for Distinguished Service Rendered."

Now I will give you a little background as to our life in the army. After Shmuel started his service, we were first stationed in Washington State, and now, for the past two years, we have been living in Schofield Barracks on the beautiful island of Oahu in Hawaii. Our housing area has about 150 families, and at present, there are perhaps ten fathers who are not overseas.

You can't imagine what it is like when virtually all the men are deployed. There is a camaraderie here that bridges all religious, financial, social, intellectual or racial gaps. We are all families. And we all want our husbands and fathers to return home, safe and sound. Never in my life did I realize I could receive such love and support from those who were not my own family, let alone so many non-Jews. I feel blessed to be living amongst such wonderful people.

Shmuel and I are the parents of six children. Our two oldest, eleven and twelve, are boys, followed by a ten-year-old girl, then an eight-year-old boy, and the two youngest, ages five and eighteen-months, are girls. Our baby was less than one year old when Shmuel was deployed. In order to make sure that she remembers him, we have his picture taped onto her high chair tray so that she can see him whenever she eats. He left videotapes of himself reading bedtime stories and telling Torah lessons to the children. We live in a community where fathers have no choice but to write goodbye notes before they leave, praying they can throw them out upon their return. Unfortunately, we have already lost two men in our unit, who were ambushed in a convoy heading towards Kuwait.

There are also practical difficulties. I home-school my children since Jewish education is not available, and I have to cook absolutely everything from scratch. But these things seem so petty in comparison to the thousands of soldiers dedicating their lives to protecting our freedom. Fortunately, we live driving distance from the Chabad house in Honolulu, so whenever possible, we attend events and gatherings so that my children can play with other Jewish children and be part of a community. Furthermore, we spend summers with our families in New Jersey where the kids attend camp, so they do get to experience a more typical Jewish community lifestyle, as well.

But raising children in such an environment has also been remarkably strengthening for them. They know who they are, what they are allowed to do, and what they cannot. And I have never seen children who are so proud to be Jewish. The other kids respect them, and the families know they cannot give them non-kosher food and that there are certain days or times they cannot come out to play. And I am still moved to tears when I watch my younger ones explain a custom or Jewish law to a non-Jewish child with such pride and excitement.

So that is basically the "why" of why we are here. Just like everyone else who has a job to do in this world, we are trying to do ours. It just so happens that our life's work landed us, for now, in Hawaii and Iraq. But we know that we are serving a purpose and we definitely see the fruits of our labor. And remarkably, even though we joined to give, we have found that we have gained tremendously as well. There is something to be learned from every situation and every environment, and let me tell you, the army has plenty to teach.

There is one last thing I want to share that has had a great effect on me. I try to use it as an example when I pray or attend shul. Every day, right around sundown, the US flag is lowered and music (called "retreat") is played. The second this begins, every car that is in motion stops, people get out of their cars, those walking come to a halt, children jump off their bikes, and all stand at attention or with a hand over their hearts in the direction of the flag. It is quite moving to witness such a thing as the respect and love for one's country permeates the air. During these few minutes, you could hear a pin drop, anywhere on the base.

I have taught my children that if this is how people can treat the flag, so much more so, how we as Jews must behave toward our holy Torah. My children have learned what it means to have respect and awe.

So as I continue to prepare for my son's Bar-Mitzvah, and count the minutes until my husband returns, I feel extremely grateful to G‑d for the opportunities He has given us. I have witnessed first-hand that the more you give, the more you truly gain.

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Mr. Meir Weiss July 15, 2011

hi bh

please send shmueli and his parents my very warmest regards

tiferes bachurim 1987-1990 Reply

Anonymous Schinnen, Netherlands February 21, 2010

It is refreshing to hear from someone stateside who deals with the same kind of stress and emotional rollercoasters that we deal with over here. Thank you for providing for us and continuing to bring G-d's words to those who need to hear it the most. May G-d bless all the armed forces and allow all soldiers a speedy, safe return! Reply

PFC Zvi Walter Baltimore, MD October 6, 2008

Yasher Koach! I found your article in the aftermath of hearing about how the Army is reacting to the mistreatment of an Orthodox Jew in Basic Training at Ft. Benning. My reaction to those within our community who ask "how can a Jew be in the Army" has always been, "why would we not?" The Jewish people have done very well in this country, and, as you point out, not only is it our duty to give back, but it is our mandate to be a "light to the nations". It could be construed, based on Jeremiah 29:7, as the duty of a Jew to serve his home community; I am, and have always been, nothing but immensely proud to be a Jewish soldier (and an infantryman!), and I consider it a mitzvah to be the best soldier that I can. Yasher Koach, and thank you, for your wonderful article, and may G-d bless and guard you and yours. Reply

Jonathan Heesch Urasoe, Okinawa July 9, 2006

Thank you so much! I am a Marine Sergeant and the Jewish Lay Leader for the Island of Okinawa. Born and raised in the Reform Movement, I have discovered Chabad and a more Orthodox form of Judaism since my return from Iraq. May Hashem bless the Felzenberg's as they continue on their holy mission. Thank you for the story as I and my family can truly relate. In regards to some of the other comments. My allegiance is to the land of my birth, The United States of America and in the words of another Orthodox Army Chaplain, Rabbi Avrohom Horovitz, "There is no greater instrument for peace in this world than the US Military." I am patriotic and a Jew and I love Israel as well, but I will defend my home. When redemption comes all the world will be under Hashem's light. So in the meantime I am proud to fight for the USA. I am a Meteorologist (not a combat soldier) and was shelled repeatedly while in Iraq, I have fired at vehicles in convoys and avoided being killed by IED's. Combat or not, we all sacrifice. Reply

Mike Tarvin June 18, 2006

Dini, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your article. I remember fondly working with your husband at your first duty station at Ft. Lewis. Blessings to you! Reply

Anonymous New York, NY October 25, 2005

I read this article with many memories of friends in the military. One was stationed at a base in Louisiana and could not obtain matza that was kosher for Passover or Chanukah candles. I cannot tell you how many boxes of matza, candles, and other much needed items I mailed to Louisiana and later Iraq!

My friends were also in Iraq for many of the holidays. Because of people like your husband, they were able to have a seder on Pesach, light an electric menorah on Chanukah, and have services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Words cannot express how much that meant to them. All of them tried and ended up saying that words that would express just how much that meant did not exist. Regardless of non-existant words, the light in their eyes said everything you needed to know.

Thank you Rabbi Shmuel for doing what you do for Jewish service members! To the rest of the Felzenberg family you are an inspiration to the family and friends of these special individuals! Reply

Viv Dell Baltimore, MD June 6, 2005

Wow! I had goosebumps throughout this story. This from a sort-of reformed Jew who but who is so proud of our chabad houses and the Lubavitch followers who devote their entire souls... Right on! Reply

Anonymous via January 15, 2005

Last October, I sent 14 Chanukah packages to unknown Jewish military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. Your husband's name was on the list of Jewish deployed. With each box I enclosed a self-addressed envelope and a note asking is there was anything else I could do/send. So far (mid-January, '05), I received two responses, neither of which requested anything. The second was a thank-you form letter in which the writer apologized for having to use that computer-generated format. The first, however, was from your husband. It was handwritten and wished me and my family a joyous Chanukah. Now that I have read your article and have learned how busy he is, I am even more impressed that he took the time to write a personal letter to me. Kol ha k'vod!!! Reply

Anonymous New York, New York September 11, 2004

Your Story
Your husband and children are very lucky to have a wife as strong as you. I am very impressed on how you hold your family together while your husband is in Iraq. I pray that he is safe and is home with your wonderful family soon. Best of luck. Reply

yehudis Chicago, il. September 1, 2004

dini felzenberg's article Dear Dini:
Your article was so inspiring. I have forwarded it so that others might benefit from "being focused" during this time before Rosh Hashanah. Certainly your family is privileged to live with values, commitment, and a level of spirituality that no money in the world can buy. Yasher koach to all of you. May you be granted a year of health, happiness and strength to continue being "lamplighters." And may you all be reuinted soon - even before February, 2005!

Dini Felzenberg Wahiawa , HI August 31, 2004

Response Mr Shmookler,

Although the fact that my husband is not a combat soldier is true, your knowledge of the risk involved in Iraq is inaccurate. Many of our troops who have been killed or injured, have been so by IEDs (improvised explosive devise). I'm not sure that the terrorist look at who is in the vehicle before they explode their bombs. Also in an effort to educate you, my husbands base is mortared on a constant basis, again I don't think job description is checked then either.

For all those who are asking about Israel: We are Americans, we live here therefore we serve here. If that upsets you than move to Israel and fight there. We are thankfull for the freedom given to our family in this country, and so in return we wish to help keep America free. By the way there are many Jewish soldiers in Iraq and not enough rabbis to go around. Reply

Anonymous Israel via August 27, 2004

To Mr. Shmookler "Can the Chabad.Org show me Lubavitcher combat soldiers?"

I would like to join J. Segal and comment how today there are many Orthodox-Lubavitchers serving as soldiers. My brother (along with many of his friends) came to Israel from the U.S. to volunteer and serve in the I.D.F. We are extremely proud of him. Today it is a lot more common to find religious soldiers, I live in Israel, and I see them all the time!

We made Aliya, and if my husband gets called up to serve - he will definitely answer the call. Reply

J Segal Jerusalem, Israel August 24, 2004

to Mr. Shmookler Dear Mr. Shmookler

You comment is both cynical and unfair. Not all soldiers are combat soldiers, and the army needs them all to achieve its objectives. And while combat troops obviously expose themselves to greater danger, they ALL risk their lives so that you can live in freedom in Lancaster. Rabbi Felzenberg risks his live and limb, daily, doing the job that the army needs him to do; can you say the same?

As for your comments vs Israel, you're either woefully misinformed or willfully misrepresenting the facts. No "exceptions" are granted to "Orthodox Jews." Yeshiva students are given a deferral from the service, which means that they are drafted, but begin serving upon the completion of their studies. A far larger percentage of religious Israelis serve in the military then secular; when it comes to volunteering to combat divisions, the percentage is much, much higher. Reply

Leonid Shmookler lancaster, ny August 23, 2004

Rarity Dear Rebbetzin:
I think that you and your husband are both Tzadikim
However, lets us be frank: your husband is not a combat soldier. He is a religious intellectual who does not clean out the the gooks from the bunkers, with a risk of being killed or maimed.
Also, you write:"Currently, there are only eight active Jewish chaplains total, and in the entire Middle East there is only one active duty Jewish chaplain". This speaks for itself.
Can the Chabad.Org show me Lubavitcher combat soldiers? In Israel huge numbers of secular Jews are resentfull of the military exceptions that are granted to the Orthodox. You and your husband cannot change that. Reply

Tuvia Cutick Silver Spring, MD August 20, 2004

Awesome! To read the pride that you take in the work your husband does in Iraq, your glowing perspective, not only on the men and women fighting, but also the families left behind, was incredibly moving.

I was an Air Force officer during the end of the Cold War... I served my country, became a base Jewish Lay Leader, and to this day serve my country with pride as a research engineer helping to develop the tools our men and women need to fight the bad guys.

There are are Orthodox Jews who think this is a nation that is destroying Jews, a nation that is only a step away from rounding us up and killing us, a country that will subvert our religious freedoms, and our economic and social success of Jews. These people make me sick... they do not appreciate what they have in this country and how all Americans, Jew and Gentile, must work together to protect our freedoms. The idea of working with the "goyim" is horrific to them.

May HaKadosh Baruch Hu bless you, your husband, and your children. Reply

Anonymous Baltimore, MD August 20, 2004

Allegiance to the flag Somebody thankfully posted your article on the shluchos network, and that's how I came to read it. I was so touched by it. I was tearing by the part where you put your husband's picture on the high chair tray, and the tapes, etc. And what I really loved was the scene you described of everyone stopping to hold their hands over their hearts as the flag is lowered. This is the awe that is proper to feel for one's country. this is the patriotism that is so lacking in our country today, and I feel it's beautiful for our children to feel it. To respect the country and be in awe of our flag. It definitely adds integrity to our personalities to have these values. I come from a pretty patriotic family, I am a fourth generation American. both grandfathers served in the USA army in WW2. This is something to pass down to the next generations, it adds to the personality of a mentch. Thank you. Reply

Shmuel Steinberg Brooklyn, ny via August 19, 2004

Very moving essay Dear Rebbeitzen Felzenberg,
Your essay was extremely moving. My brother was stationed in Scholfeld barricks in the Army. He left slightly before you arrived in Honolulu. You are doing great work and I hope you have a lot of success inspiring Jewish soldiers and being a light in this dark galus. May G-d grant your husband a speedily return even before the appointed time and we can all dance together with Moshiach in Jerusalem in true peace.

Naomi Eisenberg brooklyn, ny August 19, 2004

wow I don't have words to explain how amazed i are obviously a true ashil chayil and a true person...thank you for the inspiration! Reply

Bill gaffney Dayton, OHio August 18, 2004

I'm in Hawaii, He's in Iraq I would love to see a follow-up article on the Bar Mitzvah. Reply

phil jacobs nottingham, UK August 18, 2004

Kurdish Jews I enjoyed reading this inspirirational article very much indeed.

I wonder if it is possible to reach some of the few remaining Jews living in the Kurdish regions particularly Sulimanya.

We know of a Jewish refugee couple here in Nottm who have relatives still there and are concerned about them.

Please let me know if this is possible. Reply