No one really had to be there. Attendance at the Ft. Hood Holocaust Remembrance Days ceremony was voluntary; I psyched myself up to present to a small crowd of soldiers. The important thing, I told myself, was that the US Army honored the memory of the kedoshim by wanting to understand the events of seventy years ago. My job, representing the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was to show effusive appreciation, and scrupulously follow the requests made by my hosts concerning the content of a short message.
I was wrong. Four to five hundred soldiers made their way into the hall. (A sure indication that Jews account for only a half a percent of our men and women in uniform is that the soldiers arrived early, and the program began at precisely 10AM.) Before taking their seats, the soldiers viewed The Courage To Remember, the Wiesenthal Centers’ traveling display of the history, context, and scope of the Shoah that the Center makes available for such occasions. A film clip from the US Holocaust Museum ran on a screen up front. By the time the program began, every chair was filled; many stood in the rear. The Army had upped the ante. My remarks had become an opportunity to reach out to a significant number of mostly young people, from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. More about that in a follow-up piece.
It was the second major surprise of my stay at Ft. Hood, the country’s most populous military base, and effective deployment location for much of America’s striking force. I had arrived the evening before, and stepped into a world that was strange but reassuring. Here, people looked you straight in the eye when they spoke. They said “please” and “thank you” like they meant it, rather than shrugging their shoulders and offering a lukewarm “no problem.” They said “Sir” and “Ma’am” without sounding like they were rehearsing for a bit part in a ‘50’s movie. When they offered to help, they meant it; you didn’t have to ask for the assistance, because they had anticipated it in advance, and had the bases already covered. Crossing the gate into the base, I had come to an alternate reality, created to take responsibility for protecting America’s freedoms from all external threats. It had its own language, its own culture, its own values. A colonel I later dined with was quick to point out that it was far from perfect. It had its criminals and its failures. Nonetheless, the seriousness and sense of mission of the base were palpable. The ubiquitous signs of the trivial pursuits of pop-culture beckoned just beyond the perimeter (and were certainly available in the large tracts of family housing on the base), but in the planned activity around you, one could feel the dedication to a larger purpose that moved the distractions from central focus. Without the invitation to speak, I would never have had the opportunity to experience a different part of America, neither red nor blue, but one that delivered a sense of pride in the red-white-and-blue even to a very civilian and casual visitor. I will always be grateful for the day I spent there.
There were surprises for the observant Jew as well. I had planned on surviving for a day on granola bars. This would be made easier because the presentation left too little time to scramble for a return to LA. Happily, I would have no choice but to rent a car and drive a few hours to Dallas, where my son and daughter-in-law would treat me as always to a lavish Shabbos. Roughing it for a day would be a small price to pay.
The granola bars were left behind. Shortly after I accepted the invitation, the base Jewish chaplain reached out and offered hospitality. I responded with something non-committal, believing that the chaplain was some non-Orthodox type in whose house I would not be able to eat.
I ate plenty. It turns out that of eleven Jewish chaplains in the Army, nine are shomrei Shabbos. Captain Rabbi Moshe Lans is one of them, and I learned early on that he was entirely frum and trustworthy. His house could have been in Monsey (except for the dog), and the food was exquisite, not even lacking cholov Yisroel cheese for breakfast. The hospitality was not all his doing, of course. His wife, Leah Bracha (AKA Laurie, a former producer of Dennis Prager’s radio show), greeted me in a sheitel and long skirt. This was unexpected enough on an Army base, and doubly so considering the fact that they are intermarried. Not in a halachic sense, mind you. The crossing of lines has to do with military protocol. Moshe is Army; his wife is in the Navy Reserve. She can regale you not only with divrei Torah, but with stories about crawling through sand in Iraq to duck below the bullets. (Men will appreciate the scene I witnessed as a large moth flew through the door, and the Navy saw fit to call out the Army to deal with the intruder. She explained, “I can deal with snakes. I can deal with terrorists. Insects gross me out.” My favorite anecdote concerned the time she attempted to conceal a wrist problem by showing up on the shooting range and firing with her left hand. The subterfuge failed; she was outed by a quick-witted drill instructor. Not ready to give in, she protested that her wrist problem should not hold her back from deployment. “My weapon of choice is a Cruise missile!” she protested.)
Captain Lans does not get huge turnouts for the minyanim he runs leyl Shabbos and Shabbos afternoon. Even those who attend are not all halachically Jewish. From what I observed of his interactions with other officers, it seemed to me that his main mission klapei shemaya is as a Special Forces Kiddush Hashem Specialist, a job he discharges quite well. He should take great pride in his work.
Dinner lasted for a good few hours. I returned to my quarters (in what they call an Army Hotel, which is actually an entire house, beautifully maintained and supplied) with enough time to daven maariv, finish the Daf, and crash for the night, entirely unsure of what I would speak about the next morning. I figured that there would be time after davening in the morning to take the background notes I did prepare in advance, and turn them into a speech.
Stay tuned for what happened in the hall.