By ANNIE TASKER
Bucks County Courier Times
For Rabbi Jon Cutler, working life is markedly different these days than it was at Warrington synagogue Congregation Tiferes B’nai Israel.
Cutler, 52, now commutes by helicopter, hefting a few more pounds of equipment than his back can comfortably handle. His new synagogue was established, in part, with the help of civilian contractors. There is no Wegmans down the street for buying the Passover matzah; holiday supplies come from the care packages of doting congregants thousands of miles away.
Such is the new life of Cutler, the head chaplain of Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq’s Anbar province. In January, the Flourtown resident and U.S. Navy reservist began a 13-month deployment and was charged with overseeing 23 other chaplains. He’s back home in Pennsylvania on leave for the next few weeks.
Though the military’s Jewish population is relatively small, and Cutler’s duties involve counseling people of all religions, he said he has found people of his faith everywhere.
“Even in the far corners of Iraq, there are Jewish personnel,” Cutler said.
This is not the rabbi’s first call to military duty. Cutler was summoned to the Pentagon in the days after Sept. 11 as a grief counselor. He also served as a Navy chaplain in the Philippines and, during the Gulf War, in Saudi Arabia.
As a chaplain, Geneva Convention standards restrict him from carrying a weapon, so he has been assigned a bodyguard. But Al-Asad Air Base is peaceful and somewhat in the middle of nowhere – the rabbi compared it to being in the middle of the Nevada desert, two hours away from Las Vegas. He said he has not met an Iraqi since his arrival seven months ago.
When Cutler came to Iraq this winter, there were Jewish services being held but no place of worship for the congregants to call home. The rabbi set about creating a synagogue in the base’s chapel complex. Today, that synagogue – supplied with a Torah scroll brought over from the U.S. and the ark that holds it constructed by civilian contractors – has between 10 and 15 military personnel attending Friday night services. There is a steady crowd at Saturday Torah studies and weekly Jewish movie nights.
Helping Cutler’s efforts are several groups in the U.S. dedicated to supporting Jewish troops. The synagogue is decorated with banners made by local Hebrew school children. A California woman who attended services led by Cutler in the Philippines established an “Adopt a Rabbi” program that sends care packages with supplies for religious events, including prayer books and treats such as pastrami and hummus.
Rabbi Menachem Katz of South Florida’s Aleph Institute said he has been in touch with Cutler about sending supplies for the High Holy Days.
Katz said there are few rabbis in the military, and Aleph, the nonprofit religious education and advocacy group, is actively looking to recruit more to establish support systems for Jewish military members.
That support is important for a religious group that, according to the Aleph Institute, faces unique challenges while on active duty. Jewish people make up just a small percentage of the U.S. population, and that is reflected in the military; while soldiers might be surrounded by Jewish friends and family at home and have access to religious services, they might be the lone Jew on their particular Navy ship – and that’s hard, Katz said.
“You kind of lose touch with your religion, with your culture, with your customs,” he said.
When, from among the slew of Christian chaplains, a rabbi such as Cutler establishes a synagogue complete with a religious, social and emotional support system, it goes a long way for Jewish troops far from home, Katz said.
At the Al-Asad Air Base synagogue, only two or three of the people who attend services come from practicing Jewish backgrounds, Cutler said. Many of the young people deployed there are searching for religious meaning and have found it in Judaism. He has given study materials to several troops who said they are interested in converting to Judaism when they return home.
There is a yearning out there for those people who aren’t affiliated with the religion to reach out and learn more, Cutler said. He hopes to bring that understanding with him once he returns to his duties in Warrington.
“It’s a personal, spiritual search,” Cutler said.