Reform synagogues 'adopt' U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan
Twenty U.S. Army soldiers lived in metal shipping containers fitted with bunk beds in the desert outpost Hider north of Baqubah in Iraq’s Diyala province. Sandbags walls topped with coils of concertina wire protected the outpost from the wind, but not from mortar fire.
In November 2006, packages began to arrive at the outpost, addressed to Staff Sgt. Mike Sherman, 31, from Long Beach, Calif., who was on his second tour in Iraq and had been at Hider for a month. They contained socks, candy bars, cookies, gum, cans of soda, powdered hot cocoa and letters of support. The packages came from Temple Solel, a Reform Jewish synagogue near San Diego, Calif.
Sherman and his soldiers had never met the woman coordinating the care packages. He’d never even been inside a synagogue.
A nonprofit agency paired Sherman with Beth Ann Alitt-Berkowitz, the social action chair of Temple Solel. Alitt-Berkowitz sent Sherman e-mails asking about the living conditions on the outposts and offering to send any amenities the soldiers wanted.
“Whatever you could imagine her sending, she sent. Endless supplies of personal hygiene supplies, and DVD movies,” Sherman said. “As small as that might seem, it’s a real morale booster. In a life-and-death situation, it means a lot to receive gifts."
The Reform movement passed a resolution announcing its opposition to the Iraq war at its biennial conference in San Diego last December. But the first item of the resolution reaffirmed the movement’s support for the country’s soldiers overseas, “who have answered duty’s call and served our nations honorably.”
Alitt-Berkowitz led the social action event at the biennial, raising money and soliciting support for adopted soldiers.
“I’m against the war. And I’m a Republican. But we have to support the troops. We have no choice,” she said.
“It’s an issue of justice, and as Jews we see justice as our mission,” said Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, director of program for the Union of Reform Judaism in New York City. “We’re motivated by our Jewish ethics, and our American ideals, to support our soldiers."
Marty Greenhouse, 58, a member of Central Synagogue, a Reform temple in Manhattan, says he was inspired to adopt a soldier after hearing the rabbi give a sermon, about patriotism, on Yom Kippur last October.
The Monday after the sermon, Greenhouse contacted an agency called Adopt a U.S. Soldier (www.adoptaussoldier.org), and began sending e-mails and care packages to 19-year-old Marine Cpl. Mike Milburn, of Estacada, Ore.
“I started to e-mail him, and he replied. We talked about the weather in New York. He’d never been here,” Greenhouse recalled.
The relationship between Greenhouse and Milburn developed quickly.
“Mike was searching for a connection to America,” Greenhouse said. “He was searching for a family. The e-mails turned into phone calls, and he started to ask my opinion about things. He wanted to make sure this connection was real, that there was somebody who cared about him.”
“I’m against the war,” said Greenhouse, “but these boys have given everything for their country. We can’t abandon them over there.”
Despite his religious motivation to adopt a soldier, Greenhouse said he didn’t discuss it with Milburn.
“I didn't initially want any religious barrier between us,” Greenhouse said. He doesn’t know if Milburn is religious, except that the corporal celebrates Christmas and Easter with the soldiers on his base.
“It was born out of something in the synagogue, but religion has done a lot to divide people, but I think it can unite people,” Greenhouse said. “I truthfully think the commitment should be a universal religious commitment. Because I'm Jewish and a member of Central Synagogue, I started there. But I think it should bring all religions together.”
Sue Brown, the social action chair of Central Synagogue, estimates that over 100 members and families have adopted soldiers.
Brown said Central Synagogue made an effort to reach out to Jewish soldiers, sending Hanukkah cards and other holiday gifts.
One recipient, Lt. Ramona L. Fastow from Williston Park, N.Y., wrote a thank you from the Jalalabad airfield in Afghanistan.
“I've been deployed since May 2007, and since we're on a 15-month timeline, I won't be getting home until August 2008,” Fastow wrote. “Luckily, we are all granted 18 days of R&R leave, so I'll have a chance to go to NY and be home with my family for Passover.”
“As for life in Afghanistan,” Fastow continued, “seeing how people live here, especially women and children, makes me so thankful to be American and Jewish.”
The agency Adopt a U.S. Soldier is operated out of Denver, Colo., by Ann Johnson, and celebrated its third birthday on Feb. 4. Johnson, the 58-year-old mother of a U.S. soldier now near the end of his second tour in Iraq, started the organization after she heard from her son that on one base soldiers ate nothing but MRE’s, non-perishable field rations.
Soldiers, and those looking to help them, can register with Adopt a U.S. Soldier, which provides both parties with e-mail addresses and other contact information. Ann Johnson says she has 125,000 members supporting up to 50,000 soldiers.
“We try to get each soldier at least three supporters,” she explained.
Watching the organization grow into the hundreds of thousands in three short years was exhilarating, Johnson said.
The results were even more impressive.
“These are small miracles. I literally watched the hand of God moving here,” Johnson said.
Greenhouse says his relationship with Milburn has already had lasting effect on both their lives. Greenhouse said he learned that Milburn’s mother left when he was 15 years old. Milburn joined the Marines after finishing high school, severing his ties to his family.
When Greenhouse gave a speech at Central Synagogue calling on other members to aid soldiers like Milburn, his words were posted on the synagogue’s Web site.
“One day I get an e-mail from the synagogue about a woman claiming to be Mike’s grandmother,” Greenhouse said. “She Googled his name. I sent Mike her e-mail address. Now he has a relationship he hasn't had in four years.”