My husband was kind enough to allow me to share the story of how he joined together with his Jewish community aboard the USS Enterprise despite the difficulties of deployment in the spring of 2011. I’ll turn it over to him for today’s post. Enjoy!
I knew before the deployment started that celebrating Passover would be a little challenging. But, like most things, it’s just a matter of finding the community and going for it. The Navy is very good about arranging to have rabbis come out to forward deployed areas for Jewish holidays. The only question that remained was whether to enjoy the holiday aboard Naval Support Activity Bahrain or try to stay overnight on the Enterprise.
I made that call once I saw an old friend from Jewish Midshipman Club (JMC) aboard the ship. He was a submariner on a shore tour. But, since he was attached to the destroyer squadron as an undersea warfare specialist, it was one of those deploying kind of shore tours. So, counter to every single bit of COD guy training I had received since officially becoming a COD guy, I asked our officer in charge if I could stay aboard the ship for a night. On purpose. No mission requirement for such. He didn’t see a problem with it.
I rode in the back of the COD out to the ship. As I was walking through the Air Transfer Office shack, I spotted a man with a black kippah on his head. This, evidently, was the rabbi. The ATO shack is where all passengers going onto and coming off the ship via aircraft muster. He had conducted a pre-Pesach Seder the day before, with the intent of celebrating aboard NSA Bahrain on the actual day. But, he assured me there were plans to have a Seder-in-a-box shindig aboard the Big E.
I ran into one of the ship’s chaplains who got me the time and place for the Seder. We managed to snag the captain’s in-port cabin. Nice! With this critical question answered, I spent most of the day getting a sunburn out on the LSO (Landing Signal Officer) platform watching recovering aircraft. I even got up there to see a night recovery for the first time. The night was absolutely gorgeous. A full harvest moon hung lazily on the horizon directly behind the aircraft coming in on the approach, illuminating some distant clouds. Directly over the ship, it was painfully clear, a million stars lighting the night.
Seeing flight operations at night is one hell of an experience. On the cat shot, the afterburner seems to leave a trail of fire behind each jet. For landing aircraft, even with our exceptionally bright night, at first all you see headed towards the ship are a series of position lights. The LSOs record which wire the aircraft caught for each pass. In the day, it’s a trivial matter to see. At night, you have to catch seeing the sparks next to the capstan for whichever wire plays out. Once we completed the recovery, I went down to the in-port cabin.
The captain’s cabin was set up with a white lace tablecloth and plastic dinnerware. Two huge boxes contained our Seder supplies. For karpas, there was raw onion. The charoset was this compressed stuff that looked like a PowerBar. The maror was in little single-serving packets. There were the obligatory boxes of matzah, plus round matzah, which I had not seen before. There were a bunch of plastic Seder plates as well. For wine, we had enough boxes of grape juice to supply a third-world country.
If the supplies were a bit, ah, expeditionary in nature, the company was fantastic. My friend from JMC showed up. A department head from HS-11, our helo squadron, was the only other pilot. There was a lieutenant from Supply who was born in Columbia and raised in Venezuela. The Seder was led by an Intel ensign. On the enlisted side, there was one guy from the ATO with whom my detachment worked all the time, so that was another familiar face. There were four ladies, three of whom were nukes, one of whom was not actually Jewish, but came along to support her friend.
The Seder was conducted a bit quickly. Most of the crew had done a pre-Seder with the rabbi the previous night that was exceedingly lengthy. Just as we reached the Festival Meal, an alarm sounded over the 1MC.
“Man overboard, starboard side. This will be a helicopter recovery.”
When a man overboard happens, it is necessary to account for every individual aboard. The boat exploded into a controlled kind of chaos. People in shower shoes and bathrobes started moving towards their work centers to muster. With my detachment not aboard, I didn’t actually have anyone with whom I had to muster. I decided to go down to the VAW-123 Screwtops ready room since the ship’s E-2 squadron is who typically takes care of us.
We watched the action on the PLAT camera as the helo spun up. On the water, someone had dropped flares to mark the position of the unfortunate individual. The helicopter lifted, cut back and forth several times, and within thirty minutes, plucked the man from the Arabian Gulf. Later we would find out that this was a suicide attempt.
Actually, many Jewish holidays fall on good nights for a high probability of rescue from the sea. That full moon provided 99% illumination. When the person you’re looking for doesn’t have a float coat, cranial, or any other reflective material, you need all the help you can get.
We returned to our Seder once the action stopped. There was no real Festival Meal to speak of, so after helping the mess cranks clean up, I went down to Wardroom 2 for some midrats. There are two basic foods aboard a ship that are almost always going to be delicious: omelets and soft-serve ice cream. The ice cream is called dog. The machine has an arm you lift that looks like a tail. Lifting the tail of the dog to get some ice cream is an appropriately crude visual metaphor for the environment. I don’t know how exactly, but I definitely want to integrate these foods into my Passover tradition from now on.
It was a wonderful experience to celebrate the holiday underway, about as close as one could get to celebrating with family while thousands of miles from home. It can be a strange thing to be a Jew in the service. You are a minority among your fellow sailors and the Jewish population at large. But, I just can’t see doing it any other way.
#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.