Have you ever had one of those thoughts that sounded like a good idea at the time until you got into the details?
For the last few months I’ve been working on a project, and a few weeks ago I wandered into my boss’s office and said: “I think I need to go to Kabul.”
Now in my line of work that’s not necessarily an unusual request as I deal a lot with high threat places around the world.
So after getting the nod, off I go and make all the easy travel arrangements like airline bookings, accommodation, visa and the necessary quantity of U.S. dollars cash (sorry but no credit cards in Kabul -– only cash). As I said, that was the easy part.
To be sure, going to Kabul is nothing like going to Singapore, London or Tel Aviv. Firstly, for us humble servants of the Commonwealth, our stay is in a heavily secured accommodation compound. Every time we need to go somewhere it is in an armored Landcruiser with at least two very large and “talented” armed guards. And to top it off, we wear body armor every time we are on the move.
Believe me when I say that getting in and out of an armored vehicle in body armor is not the easiest thing. Think beached whale! In essence it’s an existence of moving from one secured “bubble” to another.
Oay, I’ve managed to work all this out and made the necessary arrangements. The real challenge is where to do you get anything resembling kosher food in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan?
With an inventive search over the Internet I find two wonderful women — Ava Hamburger (Koshertroops.com) and Phyllis Zimbler Miller. It turns out that there is a wonderful bunch of folk in the U.S. that work hard to support the 700 or so Jewish U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan and assist them with kosher foods and various religious items as required.
So I get connected with U.S. Army Chaplain Moshe Lans, who is stationed about one hour by plane north of Kabul. I’m not sure if he is thought of as the Chief Rabbi of Afghanistan, but he’s sure got to be a strong candidate for the job.
And it is through these wonderful people that I manage to arrange for a delivery of a box of U.S. Army-issued kosher MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Now, don’t get me wrong, I am so grateful that I got access to all this food. But there is only so much long-life, pre-packaged beef and vegies and chicken and potatoes that you can eat.
It just makes me all the more appreciative of what any of the Jewish troops go through to try and keep some semblance of kosher in this faraway place.
However, there is always a bright side. There was a special Shabbat package which included M&Ms and a chocolate peanut spread which went down really well for my own little Seudat Shlishit.
With the kosher meals all organized, my next challenge is where does a nice Jewish man from Melbourne (now in Canberra) go for Shabbat services. Sorry folks, but believe it or not, there is no Chabad House to be found anywhere along Jalalabad Road.
But as it happens, there is Kehilah “Camp Eggers.”
Another wonderful person, Robert Engell, is an ex-U.S. Air Force officer who acts as the lay leader for the international Jews of Kabul. He leads a small Shabbat service every Friday night at the U.S. Army base known as Camp Eggers.
You need to appreciate that getting to a Shabbat service in Kabul is not like anything you’ve ever experienced. My accommodation was located about one kilometer from Camp Eggers but the drive took almost 15 minutes. You need to navigate the worst traffic you can imagine, take an indirect route for security reasons, pass through five road blocks and then three U.S. Army checkpoints just to get into the front door of the camp.
No matter, it’s challenges like this that makes the experience that much better.
On this Shabbat it’s absolutely pelting down with snow (imagine six inches in 36 hours), and there was Robert so graciously waiting in this heavy snowfall to meet me with a VIP pass.
We walked through the camp and arrived at a building with a small room on the first floor, which acts a chapel for all the different religious groups. There Robert assembled siddurim, Kiddush wine, candles and a laptop to listen to a downloaded drasha – and a very good one at that!
Within a short time we were joined by Paul (U.S. Navy doctor), Randy (U.S. Embassy Economics Consul), Pamela (U.S. Embassy Public Affairs) and Paula (U.S. Army major).
This was a very different service to anything I’ve attended but without doubt had the spark of real Yiddishkeit. The Baal Shem Tov would have been proud how we Jews got together to celebrate being Jewish in the most challenging of situations.
No matter the language or the tunes, a Shabbat service is still a Shabbat service. It’s nice to know that no matter where you are in the world, there is always a group of Jews ready to come together on a Friday night, take pause from their regular activities, and celebrate the day of rest.
The big bonus for this particular Friday was that Pamela baked real challah while the Kiddush wine finally arrived from Kandahar. Now let me tell you that when you are 5,000 kilometers from home, home-baked challah and Kedem wine never tasted so good.
After the service, we all retired to the mess to share a meal, and I purposefully directed the conversation to the value and worth of all the human, physical and financial resources that are going into Afghanistan.
Whether it’s the thousands of civilians working on diplomatic and development programs, tens of thousands of troops risking their lives, the families waiting at home for the return of their loved ones or the billions of dollars being spent by a multitude of nations, know that the international effort here in Afghanistan is massive.
But the question remains is it all worth it? Is it worth the human sacrifice and the tears of families who have lost loved ones? The general consensus around this particular Shabbat table was that it was.
Slowly but surely children are going to newly built schools, men, women and children are attending new health centers, roads and dams are being built, and regions around the country are becoming more safe and secure. You can even watch Afghan Parliament live on TV! None of that was possible during the terror reign of the Taliban.
There was general agreement that, if the international community would pull out too soon, then the bad guys will return and that’s not going to be good for anyone in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world.
One thing my visit to Afghanistan highlighted to me is that democracy is not just “free” elections. It is free enterprise, free speech, free press, political freedoms and respect for the rule of law and the common man. The tremendous work being done by the international community in Afghanistan is taking the country one small step at a time towards those freedoms that we take for granted and the entrenchment of true democracy.
And as the country develops, the hope is that there is less reason for the average Afghani to harbor the radical elements that seek to tear down freedom and replace it with theocratic terror.