For most Jewish families, Passover is a time to get together and share memories around the table, celebrating freedom in leisure.

Taking time off work or traveling the distance to be together is part and parcel of the annual Passover experience for most, but not for Jews in the U.S. Armed Forces.

With that in mind, the Aleph Institute – a Chabad-Lubavitch run project that caters to the needs of Jewish military personnel and prisoners – has once again partnered with chaplains and uniformed lay leaders to ensure that every soldier in need is taken care of on Passover.

Under the banner of “Operation Enduring Traditions,” the Aleph Institute is shipping Passover supplies such as hand-baked matzah, grape juice and Haggadahs to some 35 locations across the globe, including Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base, as well as installations in the country’s other big cities, Kandahar and Kabul. Bases in Iraq and Kuwait are also on the list, as are locations in Germany and Kuwait, and, closer to home, Georgia, Texas, North Dakota and South Carolina.

Shipments, which represent the last step of a logistics puzzle that began in December, have already arrived in many places. The eight-day holiday of Passover, which recalls the Jewish people’s redemption from slavery in Egypt, begins March 29.

“We’re in contact with everyone,” says Rabbi Mordechai Katz, director of military and prison outreach for the Aleph Institute, of the program’s e-mail push weeks ago to finalize orders and assess needs across the military system.

In addition to enough matzah to last throughout the holiday, shipments include materials for a full-service Passover Seder, including special plates, hard-boiled eggs, yarmulkes, and assorted other items. Stored in a warehouse in New Jersey before shipping begins the day after the late winter holiday of Purim, the packages are sorted by workers in 13-hour shifts.

The effort officially supplements supplies provided by the Pentagon. Many military personnel are unable to get what they need through regular channels, while others need supplies at the last minute.

According to Katz, bases in war-zones tend to have better overall funding, and, by extension, more-comprehensive Passover programs; most of the Aleph Institute’s distributions, therefore, go to bases within the United States, where supplies can be scarce.

Passover provisions from the Aleph Institute fly to Baghdad aboard a military helicopter.
Passover provisions from the Aleph Institute fly to Baghdad aboard a military helicopter.

Building Programs

Morris Schwartz, a Jewish lay leader at the U.S. Army Armor Center in Fort Knox, Ky., will be hosting a Seder next week – his fifth year doing so – with help from the Aleph Institute.

“They say ‘Hey, what can we help you with?’ ” says Schwartz, who is receiving matzah for the ceremony, and is expecting 30 to 35 people for the celebration in the small town of Muldraugh.

When Schwartz and his wife arrived in 2005, they were surprised to discover Jewish activity on the base, including a Torah class for soldiers taught by a rabbi from Chabad of Louisville. Since then, the couple has helped build programs at the base, including a Sunday school and prayer services.

With 20 years in the military, Schwartz acknowledges that Jews in the armed forces are hard to come by.

“Since the draft ended, there are not a lot of Jews in military,” he explains. “My relatives used to say, ‘Why are you still in the service?’ I said, ‘Because someone has to do it.’ ”

Katz estimates that this year, the Aleph Institute is shipping out more than 1,000 pounds of matzah, about 40 cases of grape juice, 100 Seder plates and some 150 pounds of the specially-prepared matzah known as shmura.

According to Rabbi Sanford Dresin, Aleph’s director of military programs, many of an estimated 5,000 Jewish soldiers wearing U.S. uniforms take advantage of Passover programs. He says that he’s always working to do more by liaising with chaplains.

“We do whatever we can,” says Dresin. “We send out supplies, coordinate, let people know which bases will have Seders and hook them up.”

“It’s times like this,” echoes Katz, “when they remember their tradition and families, and can put away the stress of war by celebrating the Seder.”