Saddams out, seders in: Passover in Husseins palace

new york | When Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson asked why this Passover night was different from any other, the answer involved Saddam Hussein.

Ackerson, the senior Jewish chaplain for Operation Iraqi Freedom, was set to lead historic seders this week for Jewish men and women in the military and civilians in Saddam’s former presidential palace in Baghdad.

As he readied a seder for up to 125 Jewish troops, civilian administrators and diplomats, and even a few Iraqi Jews, Ackerson considered the prospect of celebrating the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt in Saddam’s palace appropriate.

“We’ve all come in partnership to provide freedom for this country, in a place where freedom was ripped apart,” Ackerson said in a recent phone interview from Baghdad.

The seder marked another historic milestone: In a rare move, the Department of Defense requisitioned “seder kits” from a civilian supplier for the estimated 1,000 Jews serving in the Iraqi war effort and elsewhere.

“This is the true spiritual victory over an evil empire,” said Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, joint forces command chaplain for the National Guard in New York, who has helped ferry religious supplies to Jewish troops in the war. “Our government takes the religious needs of its soldiers very seriously and goes out of its way to make sure they are met.”

Other organizations also pitched in. The Aleph Institute in Surfside, Fla., sent Passover supplies to more than 1,300 soldiers around the world, continuing a tradition it has upheld since 1995.

The group, which is affiliated with Chabad-Lubavitch and ministers to the needs of Jews in U.S. prisons, shipped thousands of pounds of matzah baked especially for Passover following strict guidelines — as well as seder plates, haggadot, grape juice, gefilte fish and macaroons — to soldiers from Haiti to Italy to Iraq.

E-mails to the Aleph Institute came from troops aboard Sixth Fleet ships off Italy, from Navy personnel in Haiti, and even from a Protestant Air Force chaplain seeking help for half a dozen Jews.

Rabbi Menachem “Mendy” Katz, of the Aleph Institute, said the organization sends out Passover and other holiday supplies to any member of the military that responds to its e-mails seeking out Jews. “Not one piece of matzah was sent out without a specific request,” he said.

The Defense Department, via its Defense Logistics Agency, purchased enough supplies for Jewish military troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. They include two seder kits with haggadot, seder plates that include the necessary ritual foods, beef stew, fish, fruit, grape juice and gum, along with kosher-for-Passover rations for 14 more meals, Katz said.

The military’s official kosher supplier, My Own Meals of Chicago, produced about 4,000 meals ready to eat, at $6.95 per ration, about 30 cents more than conventional rations, said its founder and president, Mary Ann Jackson.

This was the first year the company got back into the Passover business, she said, since 1995 and 1996, when the company made thousands of Passover meals, but only a few hundred were ordered.

Rabbi Goldstein is among those who welcomed the government’s supplying Jewish troops with food and religious items.

He spent this past Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Iraq and was “floored” to find kosher meals — including corned beef and pastrami, bagels and lox, cakes and doughnuts. There was so much, in fact, that troops had leftovers for Sukkot, which Goldstein marked by helping erect a sukkah outside the front doors to Saddam’s main palace.

Goldstein also led High Holy Day services in Saddam’s compound, a massive area encompassing 40 buildings, gardens and lakes, greenhouses and an opulent palace featuring hand-painted vaulted ceilings, marble floors and gold fixtures.

“Spiritually it was uplifting to have two Torahs and be dancing in Saddam’s palace and declaring the unity of God,’ he said.

Other Jewish chaplains led seders in military hot spots including northern Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Afghanistan and South Korea.