For weeks, U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq have consumed pre-packaged food rations called MREs, which is short for "Meals Ready to Eat." But some troops will soon receive a different form of nourishment. Jewish-American organizations are sending thousands of specialized meals to Jewish soldiers serving in Iraq and elsewhere for the Passover holiday that begins next week.
In Miami Beach, volunteers at the Aleph Institute work at a brisk pace stuffing boxes with unleavened, disk-like bread known as matzoh, grape juice containers, macaroons and other foods. The kits also contain religious articles, such as a booklet of prayers, songs and a retelling of Passover, a celebration of the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt more than three-thousand years ago.
"This is hand-made matzoh. It is made so that there is no possibility any leavening could occur," said Moshe Barouk, the institute's administrative director, who is overseeing the operation. "It is bread of affliction; when the Jews came out of Egypt, they did not have time to make their bread rise. They were rushing to leave Egypt, from where they were being liberated. It is very appropriate that it is being eaten in Iraq and other places where freedom is needed, in addition to America."
The traditional Passover meal is known as the Seder. The founder of the Aleph Institute, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, says his goal is simple: to provide Seder kits to all who need them.
"We are going to make sure that every single Jewish man and woman who is fighting and representing the United States and the free world, that they will have everything they need to celebrate their holiday with joy, happiness, and a feeling of warmth," he said. "And, of course, with the critical mandatory [religious]needs to celebrate properly. The sending of food brings about a sense of caring, sharing, and family. Who sends you packages, except for people who love you?"
Some "Seder-in-a-box" kits will go to Jewish chaplains for distribution; others will be dispatched directly to individual soldiers serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Rabbi Sholom Lipskar says his organization has received requests for nearly 2,000 Seder kits, a big order, but one he is determined to fill.
"We have had more than 20 volunteers working for the past few weeks, packing and shipping, processing orders, and making sure that they [Jewish troops] get it in time," he said. "Shipping takes time. The food packages we are sending into the war theater are not going in by the U.S. Postal Service. They are going in by C-130s [U-S military transport planes]."
President Bush has called Operation Iraqi Freedom a war of liberation. Freedom and liberation are themes central to Passover. Rabbi Sholom Lipskar says, for Jewish troops serving in Iraq, Passover will have a special significance this year.
"The whole Iraqi experience, and watching people come out of their fear, and seeing the country's cloud being lifted, it is like a veil being lifted off a person's face who has never seen light in a proper manner," he said. "For the American soldier, and especially the Jewish soldier who understands the concept of emancipation and freedom, not only from the time of Egypt, but throughout history, when they experience the ability to allow people to have a sense of freedom, and to remove these despots and evil influences, I am sure that the Passover message becomes very real, relevant and 'here-and-now.'
Sending Seder kits to Jewish troops constitutes just one part of the Aleph Institute's outreach program. The institute also sends kits to Jewish prison inmates, the elderly, and all who are cut off from their community during the Passover celebration.