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Jewish Journal

In Harm’s Way

While Jews in military face the unknown in the Gulf, anxious families pray for their safety.

by Marc Ballon

March 20, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, right, with his son, Kayitz, a Marine deployed in the Persian Gulf awaiting possible assignment in Iraq.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, right, with his son, Kayitz, a Marine deployed in the Persian Gulf awaiting possible assignment in Iraq.

For Rabbi Alan Henkin, the next few weeks might be the most difficult of his life.

His son, Michael Henkin, is one of the more than 200,000 American military personnel deployed in the Persian Gulf area. The 21-year-old Army specialist, now in Kuwait, could quickly find himself near the front lines if war with Iraq breaks out. He carries a gas mask at all times, lest Saddam Hussein unleash a torrent of chemical or biological weapons.

Rabbi Henkin, wracked with anxiety, says a nightly prayer for his eldest son. Stitched together from such eclectic sources as the Torah and a German Jewish prayer book, the benediction soothes his soul.

To honor Michael, Henkin recently began reciting his special prayer before an audience of 400 at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' (UAHC) biannual convention. He uttered but a few words before tears streamed down his cheeks. Another rabbi had to finish the blessing.

"I worry so much about Michael," said Rabbi Henkin, director of the UAHC for the Pacific Southwest region in Encino. "It would be more than devastating if, God forbid, something befell him."

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, head of Ohr HaTorah congregation in West Los Angeles, shares his colleague's unease. A bearded ex-Marine, he anxiously awaits word from his son, Kayitz, a 21-year-old Marine corporal also deployed in Kuwait. When thinking about Kayitz, the rabbi sometimes becomes overwhelmed.

"I feel like any father would. I feel anxious. I feel worried," said Finley, who is also president of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, a transdenominational seminary for training rabbis and cantors. "But I try to stay away from those feelings and only allow myself to go there a couple times a day."

For the families of the men and women in the U.S. armed forces, these are difficult times. As the United States heads to war, they cannot help but worry about loved ones who could soon be facing Saddam, a brutal leader who has gassed his own people and killed hundreds of thousands more in wars with Iran and Kuwait.

The feelings of dread might be even more acute for the parents and spouses of Jewish soldiers. Given Saddam's vehement anti-Zionism, one can only imagine the fate awaiting Jewish American servicemen taken as Iraqi POWs. As Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl tragically learned, sometimes being a Jew and an American in parts of the radical Muslim world can be a deadly combination.

One U.S. military officer said she had discouraged Jewish American soldiers from talking to The Jewish Journal because of security concerns. To publicly identify such men and women as Jews could prove "disastrous" should they fall into Iraqi hands. "These are dangerous times that call for the utmost caution," said the officer, who declined to be identified.

Among the nation's 1.4 million servicemen and women on active military duty, 3,083 are Jewish, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. The Defense Department has no statistics on the number of Jews among the 1.3 million Americans in reserve and National Guard units.

Georgetown University professor Yossi Shain said Hussein represents a threat to all men and women in the service.

 "Any American should be alarmed at the prospect of becoming a POW in Iraq," he said. "In the first Gulf War, you had all sorts of Americans complaining about mistreatment."

Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a colonel and chief chaplain of the New York Army National Guard, knows personally the dangers posed by Saddam. During the Gulf War, Goldstein was deployed to Israel as chaplain for U.S. military personnel manning the Patriot missiles. He remembers braving repeated Scud missile attacks against the Jewish State.

"There was a sense of not knowing what was in those missiles -- possible biological or chemical agents -- until three or four hours later, when we were given the all- clear," said Goldstein, who also served as chaplain at Ground Zero. "My wife, who was back in Brooklyn, had her nerves shredded a little more after each attack."

Against this backdrop, Rabbis Henkin and Finley try to go on with their lives as best they can. Both pray a bit more and try to be optimistic. Sometimes, though, a torrent of emotions break through. Mostly, the rabbis said, they are proud of their young progeny.

Henkin said his son has matured significantly since joining the Army Reserve nearly two years ago. In basic training, Michael lived away from home for the first time, learning how to become self-reliant and pushing himself to his physical and mental limits. Michael grew so cocksure that he later sent younger brother Matthew, now 10, a letter offering unsolicited advice on how to lead a better life, Rabbi Henkin said.

The rabbi wasn't always so enthusiastic about his son's decision to enlist. A product of the turbulent 1960s, Henkin protested the Vietnam War. He said he had some "lingering" misgivings about U.S. power and expressed those qualms to his son. But Michael saw military service as an "adventure, a chance to bond with some good men and women, to serve his country." Henkin said he has since come around to supporting Michael wholeheartedly.

In a show of solidarity, Henkin and other family members recently donned T-shirts inscribed with "We Love You Michael" and took group pictures. The rabbi plans soon to send the photos, along with a care package, to his son.

Henkin never imagined his son could end up on the battlefield in a post-Cold War world, forcing him temporarily out of Pierce College and into fatigues. Now, he might. And as a precautionary measure, Michael just had his dog tags reissued to remove his Jewish religious affiliation.

Rabbi Finley had no misgivings when Kayitz decided to put off college and join the Marines. The rabbi himself served in the Marines from 1973 to 1976 and credits the experience with giving him a sense of purpose and self-discipline. He figured Kayitz would profit from it as well, although some of his son's high school buddies wondered why a smart Jewish boy would voluntarily put himself in harm's way.

To Rabbi Finley, there are few greater callings than serving one's country, especially in disarming "a violent, aggressive tyrant" like Saddam.

"The military is a wonderful institution, full of people who are willing to train hard night and day so people can sleep safely in their beds, full of people willing to die for your freedom," he said.

Rabbi Finley said Kayitz has personally developed since becoming a Marine on Sept. 11, 2000. He has worked alongside Kenyan soldiers in Africa, seen the world and earned government funding toward his future college education. In a reflection of how far he has come, Kayitz oversaw in January the loading of weapons and supplies onto ships before shipping out.

"Joining the Marines was a gutsy thing for him to do," Rabbi Finley said.

The gutsiness of U.S. military personnel in the Persian Gulf will likely soon be challenged as never before. That's why Henkin continues to say his special nightly prayer for son Michael, Kayitz and the other men and women in the U.S. military.

"May the One who blessed our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, bless those who are serving in our armed forces. May God guard them, and keep them from harm. If they find themselves in danger's path, may God bring them back whole of mind and body to all those who love them."

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