If not for Cub Scouts in Houston, Army Spc. Joseph Lowit would find it next to impossible to celebrate Hanukkah.
As part of a service project, Pack 1190 from Congregation Emanu El prepared care packages with Hanukkah candles, menorahs and dreidels — giving Spc. Lowit and 150 other troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait a way to mark the holiday.
“Thanks to them I can, and I am very grateful,” wrote Spc. Lowit, a 26-year-old infantryman from Miami who is the only Jewish soldier on his base in Iraq.
Hanukkah, which starts at sundown today, commemorates how Jews reclaimed the defiled Jerusalem Temple from a Syrian despot in 165 B.C. and how one day’s worth of ritual oil that the Jews found miraculously burned for eight days.
The holiday is celebrated by the lighting of a menorah for eight nights.
“Hanukkah is perhaps easier than other Jewish holidays to observe in the field,” said Army Capt. Shmuel Felzenberg, a Jewish chaplain who plans Hanukkah parties in Baghdad and Camp Anaconda, 50 miles north of Baghdad. “Although having the customary latkes [potato pancakes] and fresh sufganiyot [jelly doughnuts] may be far from easy, the basic menorah lighting observance is relatively easy to facilitate.”
The boys of Pack 1190 talked about what it might be like to be a Jewish soldier at Hanukkah and decided to make greeting cards and assemble goody bags for troops.
“I thought it was a worthy cause because … it was giving greetings to people without any family to celebrate,” said 8-year-old Jordan Todes, who crafted many of the cards from construction paper.
Two Scout musicians — Jarrett Taxman on guitar and Mitchell Chaiet on the cello — played classical tunes outside a Houston bagel shop to raise money for Hanukkah supplies and toiletry items such as razors for the troops’ care packages.
“There’s some Jewish troops in Iraq that are maybe the only ones in their unit,” Jarrett, 11, said. “It’s really hard to celebrate if you’re the only one. I’m just really glad I could help.”
Jewish troops represent roughly 1 percent of the U.S. force, making them a “relatively isolated group,” said Army Lt. Col. Mitchell S. Ackerson, the senior Jewish chaplain in Iraq until returning home earlier this year.
“You don’t have 50 guys in a unit who are Jewish,” Col. Ackerson said. “You’ll get two or three if you’re lucky.”
In Spc. Lowit’s case, being the only Jewish soldier “can be very difficult … but you manage and my comrades make me feel at home and try to learn and ask questions,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press.
Spc. Lowit, who helps patrol Iraqi towns, said the Scouts’ concern for the troops made him smile. He has even become pen pals with one of the youngsters.
“I love kids, and to know that Pack 1190 supports us was great,” wrote Spc. Lowit, who has a 4-year-old daughter. “It really touched my heart.”