In a Strange Land

13 01 2008
THINGS US ARMY CAPTAIN ANDREW Shulman finds the trickiest about being a Jewish chaplain deployed to Baghdad: passing the physical fitness test, finding new congregants – “Sometimes it’s Cohen who’s not Jewish and Flannigan who is,” he says – and strictly observing the Sabbath. In Iraq, says the 41-year-old Orthodox Jew from Malden, “every day’s a Monday.”

Conspicuously missing from Shulman’s list of hardships are the mortar and rocket attacks that occasionally jolt Camp Victory, the sprawling American military complex around Baghdad International Airport where he lives, sharing a trailer with a helicopter pilot. Or the merciless violence that rages just outside the fortified walls of the military base, where he has been stationed since May, counseling soldiers of all faiths, holding Jewish holiday services, and distributing Seder kits, prayer booklets, and spiritual guidance to Jewish service members all over Iraq.

This is perhaps because for Shulman, who is married and a father of two, his journey from a sheltered childhood in Beverly Hills to being one of only three Jewish military chaplains in a country that until recently listed the destruction of Israel among its official goals is as shocking, in retrospect, as coming under a rocket attack from Iraqi insurgents.

When Shulman was little, the whole world seemed Jewish. “Stuff that wasn’t Jewish was weird,” Shulman recalls, reclining on his living room couch in Malden under a picture of Jerusalem’s Old City during a two-week leave from the war in the fall. Shulman’s parents, transplants from New York who pepper their conversations with Yiddish words, sent little Andrew first to various Jewish private schools and then to Beverly Hills High School, where students could take Hebrew as a foreign language. Shulman took Spanish. He was “looking for something more exotic,” he explains.

This adventurous streak resurfaced in 1994, when Shulman quit his job at a nonprofit that promoted environmental programs in San Diego and went on a trip that began in India and ended in a yeshiva tucked into the limestone maze of Jerusalem’s Old City. Shulman stayed and studied Judaism there for the next few years. He met his wife, Lori, at the yeshiva, and their first daughter, Zohar, who is now 7, was born in Jerusalem.

In 2001, Shulman and his family moved to Boston, where he worked organizing speed-dating events for Jewish singles, and then to Malden, where he worked at Congregation Beth Israel. By 2006, he again “was looking for something different.” Browsing the Internet one night, he came across a US Army chaplaincy website. A year ago, Shulman reported to the Army’s chaplain school at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. “In the school, you do push-ups,” he says, shuddering at the memory. In May, he was on a plane to Iraq. He is stationed at Forward Operating Base Striker, a section of Camp Victory. “It can be intimidating,” Shulman says, to be the only guy on a military base housing more than 50,000 uniformed troops who goes to the dining facility in a yarmulke.Continued…

Most of the troops he counsels are Christians from the Fourth Battalion, Third Aviation Regiment of the Combat Aviation Brigade of the Third Infantry Division. Many are grappling with family lives disrupted or damaged by lengthy deployments. The two dozen or so Jewish members of his congregation – which includes troops and a US Embassy official – come for holiday blessings and simple religious advice. This is “mostly Judaism 101,” says Shulman. “It’s not like you’re doing the bar mitzvah or slaughtering chicken.” According to Rear Admiral Harold L. Robinson, a rabbi whose Jewish Chaplains Council in New York endorsed Shulman for chaplaincy, Shulman’s commanders’ comments about his work have been “amazingly complimentary.”

Lori, Shulman’s willowy wife, works part time as a preschool teacher and baby sitter in Malden. She gets worried wrinkles in the corners of her smile when she talks about her husband’s decision. “The whole Army idea was new to us,” she recalls. “I had to think about it and digest it for a while.” Even the chaplain sounds surprised when he discusses his career choice. “It’s kind of unbelievable,” he says. “My grandfather fled Russia to escape mandatory conscription to the Russian army. And a hundred years later [I’m] flying on a Black Hawk to deliver kosher MREs” – that’s meals ready to eat – to soldiers.

Shulman seems to revel in the paradoxes that accompany his deployment, like the time the Catholic chaplain ordered kosher Manischewitz wine for Communion – apparently, it keeps well. Or the wireless Internet access on the base, which allows Shulman to watch via Web camera his wife and daughters eat lunch in the kitchen of their Malden apartment. “Sometimes I’m sitting in the dining facility with a Baskin Robbins Cookies ‘n Cream cup with chocolate sauce poured all over it watching Boston Legal on the plasma on the wall,” he says, “while guys are lined up for all-you-can-eat lobster, and I think, ‘War is hell?'” (At Shulman’s request, Lori called the ice cream company and found out that its Oreo Cookies ‘n Cream flavor is kosher.)

But Shulman’s face momentarily darkens when he recalls his trip to Forward Operating Base Kalsu, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, where he has flown several times to meet with Jewish soldiers stationed there. “They had three people who died in their CHUs,” the chaplain says, using the military abbreviation for trailers where the troops live. “Mortar attacks. That was more of a real thing.”

Shulman flew to Kalsu on a Black Hawk, and that part of the trip he recalls fondly: Helicopter rides top Shulman’s list of the best things about being in Iraq. This list is short. The only other item on it is leading Jewish holiday services for American troops in a country that in the Old Testament is known as Babel: “Just such a wild setting to be leading Rosh Hashana.”

Before Anna Badkhen joined the Globe as a Metro reporter, she reported extensively from Iraq. E-mail her at badkhen@globe.com.

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