Military chaplains: An Orthodox rabbi mixes faith and patriotism in Afghanistan
Army Capt. Shmuel Felzenberg juggles outreach to local Muslims, interfaith counseling, and the kosher quest
Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan
When the bus doors open, 20 soldiers clamber out, laughing, reaching for their cameras like college kids on spring break. Yet they haven't traveled far. Part of the Army's 82nd Airborne, they've driven 10 minutes across this coalition forces base from their US camp to the Egyptian-run hospital compound.
Still, in a space bound by blast-walls and concertina wire, this qualifies as an adventure because, during the next couple of hours, they will bring together two disparate worlds: that of Afghan villagers who've suffered the ravages of consecutive wars and that of Americans who have gathered in church basements and synagogues, private homes and community centers from New Jersey to California, filling boxes with donated items – everything from toys to toiletries.
Directly or indirectly, the boxes wend their way to the offices of US Army chaplains, who turn the distribution of donations into a feel-good outing for their soldiers.
At the helm of this base outreach program is Shmuel Felzenberg, an Army captain who darts around the grounds as soldiers unload boxes from a truck and set up tables. Under his military cap he wears a black yarmulke, and on his uniform the insignia that mark him as a Jewish chaplain – two tablets topped by a star.
"Ready to go hot," he calls out, and the soldiers position themselves behind the tables.
Minutes later, Afghan women in dark-colored head scarves and blue, pleated chadris (full head and body veils) queue up at the gate. Egyptian soldiers usher them in, and as the Afghans move from table to table, American soldiers, semiautomatic rifles slung across their backs, reach into the boxes and hand them sweaters, shoes, baby clothes, notebooks, and toys.
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