Stationed along the Syrian border in a remote region of Iraq, U.S. Marine officer Etan Anthony looked forward each day to those few precious minutes when he could don tefillin and pray the Shema and other parts of the morning service. It gave him a sense of security, of being protected, and affirmed his connection with fellow Jews as he stood guard in hostile territory.

For Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of programs for military personnel at the Florida-based Aleph Institute, those few moments of serenity in the life of a combat soldier – as well as the large celebrations and prayer services the Aleph Institute helps arrange at forward bases and division headquarters abroad – are more than worth the effort in cutting through mounds of red tape.

This year, the organization sent east-to-assemble pop-up sukkahs to American personnel stationed throughout the Middle East, in addition to helping soldiers on larger bases get the necessary permissions to build the Sukkot holiday structures. In the days leading up to the annual seven-day festival, the Aleph Institute also sent 30 sets of the Four Species to Iraq. Katz, who has spent 13 years working with Jewish soldiers, says that such efforts – especially when added to the hundreds of Jewish books, sets of tefillin, prayer shawls and other items that the Aleph Institute helps make available year round – bring peace of mind to those in the military.

“Over the holidays, many soldiers let us now how much they appreciated the Four Species,” said Katz. “It’s a wonderful feeling to know that you’ve brought soldiers some happiness this time of year.

Before the High Holidays, a very special gift made its way to Army Capt. Henry Soussan, a Jewish chaplain stationed in Kuwait. Donated to the Aleph Institute by Yakov Hank Sopher, the Torah scroll will be loaned to other military chaplains around the world, but its first journey was to Soussan, who used it from Yom Kippur through Simchat Torah. To get to Kuwait, the scroll went from Aleph’s headquarters in Miami to New Jersey, where it boarded a transport flight out of McGuire Air Force Base.

“I can’t give a specific number, but I can say that we had a huge [group] throughout all of the prayer services,” said Soussan, who was able to call up every soldier about to be deployed to Iraq to the Torah to make a blessing.

U.S. Army Capt. Henry Soussan holds a Torah scroll sent to his base in Kuwait by the Florida-based Aleph Institute.
U.S. Army Capt. Henry Soussan holds a Torah scroll sent to his base in Kuwait by the Florida-based Aleph Institute.

Over the years, Aleph has developed a strong working relationship with the military, which has allowed the organization to get shipments of ritual items and kosher food to soldiers in a relatively short time. Sometimes, the question is as simple as knowing color or camouflage style a skullcap must have in order to meet regulations; at other times, Katz and his staff help explain the importance of an item to a soldier’s superiors.

For Etan Anthony, who has since returned home, the most precious gift he received from Aleph is his tefillin.

“On a visit to Israel with a youth group, a group of Chasidim in Jerusalem had offered to help me put on tefillin and say a prayer,” he explained. “Being a rebel teenager, I thought it was a silly novelty. But in Iraq where roadside bombs, snipers, and gunfights were an everyday occurrence, and I knew each and every day might be my last, I cherished my tefillin. It was my invisible shield that I would physically put on, and then say my prayers. But even after it was removed, I felt that the presence of the L-rd 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,” he continued, “but being in a high stressed combat environment helped bring my Love of G‑d closer than ever.”