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Tefillin on the Berm Between Iraq and Syria

Tefillin on the Berm Between Iraq and Syria


Etan Anthony
1st Lt/USMCR
E Co, 4th Recon BN

Towards the end of my deployment in Afghanistan, I learned how to don the tefillin in my hooch between patrols with my platoon from one village to the next. There, I had fifty other Marines with me protecting each others' back. We felt almost invincible. But when I was deployed to Iraq, a lone Jewish Marine Corps Officer among hundreds of Iraqi soldiers in a remote region of the Syrian border, I had to live with keeping my religious identity to myself.

I recall the loneliness I would feel while standing on the berm separating Iraq from Syria, staring across the desert and dreaming about being in Israel only a couple hundred miles away. I would laugh to myself how I could drive there and back in a day and nobody would have to be the wiser. So close, but a world away. It was like a kind of torture. Maybe Moses felt similar when he wasn't permitted to enter Canaan. I hope not.

As an embedded trainer among 1,500 Iraqi soldiers, I had to conceal my identity twenty-four hours a day. In the eyes of the Iraqis that I was training, I was just another blue-eyed, Christian American. My teammates (all nine of them) understood my situation and knew that my religion had to be kept a secret. I couldn't even have "Jewish" on my dog-tags. We had two Iraqi translators who lived with us, and after a few months we built trust and they learned of my religion, but still I always felt I had to watch my back extra carefully. I was always afraid that somehow my religious identity would get out and an Iraqi officer smiling at me one moment would put a bounty on my head ten minutes later.

My one moment of consolation was going into our team hut on our compound, stepping behind my poncho liner hanging from the ceiling, putting on my tefillin and tallit (which I received from the Aleph Institute) and saying the Shema and daily prayers. My teammates thought it was a strange ritual, but respectfully showed understanding and once in a while even a slight curiosity. I've been told that Jewish Marine Corps officers make up one half of one percent of the USMC. Truly, the very few and just as proud.

Raised as an unobservant Jew in Hollywood, CA, I never considered putting on tefillin. On a visit to Israel with a youth group, a group of Chabad Hassidim in Jerusalem offered to help me put on the tefillin and say a prayer. Being a rebel teenager, I thought it was a silly novelty. But in Iraq where IEDs, roadside bombs, snipers, and gunfights were an everyday occurrence and I knew that each and every day might be my last, I cherished my tefillin.

It was my invisible shield. I would physically put it on while I said my prayers, but even after it was removed, I felt that the presence of G‑d would stay with me and see me through one more day. Or at least give me the courage to face my death if my number was up. I've always believed in G‑d, but being in a high stressed combat environment helped bring my love of G‑d closer than ever.

Since returning from Iraq, I have returned to an almost normal life and, feeling less vulnerable, have since placed my tefillin aside. But after writing this message, I realize that whether in a combat zone surrounded by potential enemies who may or may not hate Jews (let alone a Jewish Marine Officer), or home amongst the tribulations, chaos and temptations of American life, placing my "shield" of G‑d over my body and mind to keep me grounded in His power and love is as important now as it was in the Iraqi desert. I may have felt more at risk in Iraq, but with my tefillin, tallit, and prayer, I feel more whole and complete, as if I carry the spirit of G‑d closer to me.

Maybe that's why I recently started putting them on again, here in the States.

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Judy July 19, 2017

Thank you for your service. And. Would you explain in simple terms the difference between the different moslem religion/political groups that are fighting each other? Why are we there and who are we fighting?..and does the "enemy" change according to which country you're in? .sorry for being so ignorant.. Reply

Julie Los Angeles, CA November 6, 2011

Beautiful Dear Etan,

Thank you for your service--and thank you for the beautiful and heartfelt article. I hope your children also come to know the beauty of our faith. You sound like a man of strong convictions--one who is intelligent, patriotic and well aware of the power of prayer. One of my uncles tells of his time at Annapolis, and having the local Jewish community bring cookies for socializing during the Sunday religious services--quite a few years ago, but always worth hearing. I'm sure you have many such stories--please write more of your experiences. Reply

Anonymous los angeles, ca usa October 22, 2010

tefilin Read the articles that show correspondences between the areas where the leather binds against the skin and acupuncture points. It has been discovered that these meridian points, when bound, increase spirituality and remove blockages. The use of tefilin increases well-being and removes some of men's selfish tendencies. The boxes are placed over important areas that bind the head with the heart. Although many strange rituals seem inexplicable, there is reason behind them which we don't always understand. Perhaps new research in the future will continue to explain these seemingly strange mitzvot. Reply

semihardrock fort lauderdale, fl October 19, 2010

semper fidelis semper fi = "always faithful," to those non US Marines Reply

SGT Josh Havens October 19, 2010

Roger that! I know the feeling Sir! I have been deployed to Iraq twice myself. Being from Texas, Jews are quite rare in certain places. I was fortunate enough to be part of starting up the Jewish community at my base both times I was deployed. Somewhere I have a list of NSNs for Jewish items. I'd be glad to pass that along should you be interested.

Shalom, Hooah, and Hoorah!

SGT Josh Havens
HHT 3\124 CAV Reply

Anonymous Charlotte, NC February 28, 2009

I sit alone in my room, moved to tears as I read your post. I cannot put words to the feelings inside me about being a Jew. I was not raised in terribly observant home. But still, being Jewish, engaging in our rituals, and being connected to other Jews has always held a real importance for me.

Thank you for being the sort of person who would risk your life for others. And for sharing something that can give me that "connected" feeling that I crave. Reply

Anonymous January 13, 2009

Tefillin on the Berm Thank you for that! It made me so happy to learn that you had embraced your Creator in the midst of that chaos! Coming from a non-observant background only makes it that much more precious. Reply

Sholom Yaakov Mossman S Rosa, CA/USA! December 29, 2008

Thank you Dear Lt. Anthony,

Thank you, sir, for your service to this great country. Thank G-d that there are brave men like you willing to put your lives on the line to protect our freedom. It is because of you that the rest of us here can put on tefillin and not hide our Jewish identity. Semper fi! Reply

Anonymous london, UK December 3, 2008

hidding identity in Iraq Maybe you shouldn't be in a war zone to begin with. Most people with a conscience feel guilty watching people die and suffer in war torn countries. Reply

Martha Baker San Francisco, CA. U.S.A. December 2, 2008

Tefillin I am so proud to call you my cousin, cousin Nessa e-mailed me your article, your Abba and Family should be very proud of you. My late Husband Bill was a sgt. in the Marine Corps in WWII, and reveived the Purple Heart. Always be proud of your Heritage.

Semper Fi
Cousin Martha Baker San Francisco Reply

Roni Zee Scottsdale, AZ, USA via November 30, 2008

Your article Dear Etan,
Your aticle brought tears to my eyes. Not only was it beautfully wriiten, it was filled with so many tender memories and moments.
Thank you for not only sharing your thoughts and feelings with the community, thank you for your service to our Country. Reply

Sue Miner Allentown, pa via November 22, 2008

Thank You! How can we ever thank you enough!!!
Thank you for putting yourself in harms way to help others.
Thank you for helping to bring Moshiach one step closer for us all with this mitzvah. Reply

Linda Port Jefferson, NY via November 22, 2008

Being Jewish Thank you for such a contemporary story of faith. We often hear of these stories from ancient times so this has a special beauty. Reply

Norm Williams Hamilton, Ont. Canada via November 21, 2008

tephilan I rarely place them on my body. I always carry them in my car. I am always in my car. Reply

Robert Coconut Creek, fLORIDA via November 20, 2008

Chabad is always their Friends, whether it be in New York, Boise, Iowa, or the sands of Iraq, you can be sure Chabad will be there in support of yiddishkeit. thanks! Reply

Louis Trachtman New Orleans, LA/USA via November 20, 2008

Tefillin on the Berm..... Thank you for sharing your story. To think you had the mitzva of putting on tefillin in the area where Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham) was born. Reply

Paul I. Licker Suntree, FL, USA via November 20, 2008

Our American Heroes We, The Jewish War Veterans of The United States of America, Walter I. Berlin Post 639, Suntree, Brevard County Florida has been for a number of years, on a regular basis, been sending packages of books, movies and now Starbucks Coffee along with International Phone Cards to our service men and women (our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Coasties) serving around the world. Send me the name and complete Military address along with your email adddress, to: We will send a package to the GI and also for his or her friends at no cost. We have been doing this for numerous years and will continue to do so until our troops come home. Thank you, Paul I. Licker, US ARMY Retired, Past Commander, Suntree Florida Reply

neal murfreesboro, arkansas November 20, 2008

tefillin just want to say Semper Fi. and welcome home Sir.
g2/3 viet nam Reply

ya'akov la, calif November 19, 2008

you are eitan! yasher koach eitan,
i was touched by your piece.
may you go to israel and be a blessing wherever you are.

thanks for sharing this with us. it helps so many people. Reply

Debra Halborn Charlottesville, VA/USA November 19, 2008

Covert Jews Stand Tall Dear Etan and All Other "Posters" - Do I have a book for you all to read! Entitled "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean - How a generation of swashbuckling Jews carved out an Empire in the New World in their quest for treasure, religious freedom - and Revenge"
Writer-historian Edward Kritzler takes us on daring sea-voyages of bold and brazen Jews, like Samuel Palache, The Pirate Rabbi (Wow!) who were expelled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela - and hitched a ride with Columbus across the ocean to undiscovered New World . . . and what else? They thrived!
Jewish "conversos" and "New Christians" hid, yet retained their cherished identities as "People of The Book" while plundering the wealth of The Spanish Empire, bringing the empire to her knees. How fitting!

Published by Doubleday, 2008, buy it now for a great Hanukkah miracle story!

Whether wrapping tfillin, davenning, or lighting Shabbat candles, we stand today, in the face of all odds. Reply

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