Rabbi Johnn Cutler, far lower right, celebrates Chanukah with other marines in Iraq. Photo courtesy Rabbi John Cutler
A short distance from the area where many historians believe the Talmud was written, Rabbi Jon Cutler leads one of the only functioning synagogues left in Iraq.
"You could feel the history of this place, especially when we were praying as community," Cutler -- a Navy chaplain -- wrote recently in a letter describing the High Holy Day services held at Al Asad Air Base.
Although Jews are said to have first arrived in Iraq during the Babylonian Exile, and although by the 1940s more than 100,000 Jews called it home, few -- civilian or otherwise -- remain in the country today.
Cutler says approximately 30 Jewish military and civilian personnel currently are stationed in Al Asad and about 100 Jews serve the military throughout western Iraq.
"I found that Jewish marines, soldiers and sailors need a Jewish community to belong to. It can be lonely being Jewish out here," Cutler said in a recent interview.
Cutler has alleviated the isolation Jewish patriots feel by establishing a Jewish chapel and by creating a fully functioning synagogue, complete with a Torah scroll and an ark made by contractors on the base.
On Thursday nights, soldiers huddle together for a Jewish movie night. Every Friday evening, they gather for Shabbat services followed by an intimate Shabbat dinner. Saturday nights include a Torah study session.
For Chanukah, Cutler is traveling to various bases throughout western Iraq, paying a visit to Jewish personnel living throughout the region. Chanukah celebrations at Al Asad itself include the lighting of a giant outdoor menorah.
The number of Jews who attend services varies from week to week, but Cutler says he can count on at least 15 people every weekend.
But Cutler says he couldn't have created the Iraqi synagogue on his own.
Although Cutler is an experienced rabbi, serving Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Warrington, Penn., he has fashioned this shul-away-from-home only with the help of the American Jewish community.
Two programs at Valley Outreach, a synagogue in the San Fernando Valley -- "Adopt-a-Rabbi" and "Operation Interdependence" -- have helped ensure Cutler has the supplies needed to foster a Jewish community abroad.
Angel Mitchell, who currently resides in Sacramento, started the "Adopt-a-Rabbi" program after learning Cutler was traveling to Iraq. The two met when they were both in the Philippines -- the Jewish chaplain's first duty station.
"When Angel found out that I was going to Iraq ... she wanted to know what she could do to help," Cutler said. "When I got here in January, 2008, there was a small Jewish community and they were having Shabbat meals, and I continued that, but I realized that I needed a source for kosher food."
Mitchell began shipping kosher goods, but when the costs became prohibitive, she went to various organizations to solicit funds and donated items.
It was Valley Outreach's Stan Taub who brought the "Adopt-a-Rabbi" program to the Los Angeles area. The first items Taub sent over were prayer books.
"We had prayer books here that were issued by the military, and we had Orthodox prayer books as well, but since none of the Jewish personnel -- except for one or two -- can read Hebrew, we needed a prayer book that was totally transliterated," Cutler said.
Working with members of his synagogue, Taub raised enough money to send over 20 copies of "Mishkan Tefillah."
"It's a big hit," said Cutler. "If it were not for people like Stan and Angel, we would feel very isolated out here. They provide a major link from the American Jewish community to us."
Taub has also joined Mitchell in shipping kosher items, smoked salmon, salamis and, for Chanukah, gelt -- all of which amount to a monthly supply of food for the soldiers.
Valley Outreach's other program, "Operation Interdependence," is part of a nationwide program that deploys goods to military personnel of all faiths stationed overseas.
Sheri Albala began the synagogue's mitzvah project in the garage of her home and continues the work to do this day, packaging what she refers to as "C-Rats": boxes filled with enough Ziplock bags to support an entire platoon, which contain letters, grooming aids, magazines and other items.
"I grew up in the Vietnam era, and I remember how poorly our soldiers were treated when they came home," Albala said, fighting back the tears, when asked for the reason behind her start-up.
"This is what I can do for them, this is what I can do to support our country," she said.
Cutler says that all in all, the Jewish community in Iraq has come together so powerfully that a number of non-Jewish troops have expressed interest in converting.
"It's not just a congregation," Cutler said. "We actually have become family."