October 19, 2006
Brotherhood in a Sukkah ... in Iraq
"What's this?" I wondered aloud. When I looked closer, I noticed the words "Sukkah" and "U.S. Government" stamped on each package.
"A sukkah kit for the Jewish service personnel at our overseas American Air Force base!" I exclaimed. "It's not often one comes across these sorts of things in an Arab country!"
As the sole Jewish chaplain at the base, I eagerly shared the news with the Jewish personnel who serve here. We agreed to meet late Friday afternoon, before Sukkot began, to erect the booth. Due to busy schedules, only two of us showed up. Determined to get the help I needed, I asked the chapel staff for volunteers. A Catholic chaplain and a Protestant chaplain offered to assist.
The three of us, accompanied by the Jewish airman, picked a spot for the sukkah in front of the chapel. We felt the location was perfect because the outer chapel walls would protect the sukkah from the high desert winds.
We hastily opened the boxes and pulled out the disassembled white metal frame, the white-and-navy nylon tarp used for the walls and the reed mat for the roof.
As the Jewish airman read the assembly directions to us, the other chaplains and I interlocked the floor frame, and I used a rubber mallet to hammer the corner wall pieces into the slots of the floor frame.
We stabilized the sukkah with four bungee cords, then stretched the tarp around the perimeter of the structure. Two parallel wooden beams were laid for roof support, and the reed mat was unraveled on top of the beams.
To prevent the schach, as the roof is known, from blowing away, we tied it to the frame. We completed the project by placing a wooden pallet outside the front door as a makeshift "welcome mat."
The airman, Protestant chaplain, Catholic chaplain and I stepped back, wiped the sweat from our brows and admired our handiwork.
What a beautiful sukkah! And probably the only one in this entire Muslim country.
We first used the sukkah that night. After participating in Shabbat/Sukkot services in the chapel, we walked outside and made Kiddush over grape juice and made the blessing over the bread in the sukkah.
Together we recited the blessing "Lashev b'sukkah," blessing God for commanding us to dwell in the sukkah, and sat down on metal folding chairs.
While feasting on brownies, cookies and pecan pie, we discussed how lucky we were to have such a beautiful sukkah. We continued to talk throughout the evening until the others excused themselves for bed.
Before leaving the sukkah, I looked through the roof at the stars above.
"How appropriate it is to observe Sukkot in the Middle Eastern desert," I thought.
Being a service member in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I also realized that life, like the sukkah, is temporary. One never knows how long one might live or when one might die.
For this reason, we must truly make the most of each day that God grants us. As the Psalms say, "Teach us to count our days wisely so we may attain a heart of wisdom" (Psalms 90:12).
With this in mind, I stood up to leave the booth. As I walked out into the warm, moonlit night, I smiled at the thought that Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chaplains had worked together as brothers-in-arms and friends to build a sukkah.
Before joining the Air Force in 2004, Rabbi Gary Davidson served as rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach. Security precautions prohibit identifying the air force base where Davidson is currently stationed. He can be reached by e-mail at Mensch613@msn.com.