In The Midbar

It was in the mid 1970’s. My husband was a newly-minted chaplain in the United States Air Force and we would be stationed in the UK for a three-year tour of duty.

We left behind our families, friends and jobs to face an uncertain future.

My first inkling that I had a lot of adjustments to make was when we arrived at Maguire Air Force Base. I seemed to be one of the few people in civilian dress!

For the next 3 years, I would be considered a dependant of my husband and consequently any requests that I would make would have to include my husband’s Social Security number, rather than mine. (When I took childbirth classes some time later, I insisted on using my own social security number!)

Eventually we arrived at the RAF Mildenhall Air Force base from which we took a bus to our new home, The RAF Lakenheath Air Force Base, both of which are located in East Anglia, not too far from Cambridge, but, (before the advent of the super highways,) about 2 ? hours away from London and the nearest frum, Jewish community….

In short, I was living in a veritable midbar (desert).

My husband was required to conduct Friday night services throughout the year at 7:30 PM, even in the winter when Shabbos commenced before 4:00 PM. During the summer months, Shabbos ended after 10 PM!

Our congregation consisted of some very interesting people. The most observant of them was a non-Jew, Sargent John Ferguson, who wife was Jewish but who had no interest in Yiddishkeit.. John not only built our sukka,(he also insisted that my husband buy the nicest silver Kiddush becher he could find in London, because John did not like the pewter one that was provided to us by the Air Force). We didn’t realize at the time that we needed permission to erect this “fire hazard.” We got clearance after the fact and had to take it down as soon as the Yom tov concluded.

Several of the soldiers never met a Jewish person, let alone a religious one.

One day my next door neighbor came over to say hello. He was a member of the JAG team, a lawyer. He had a drinking problem. With beer bottle in hand he strode in to see me koshering chicken livers on pieces of foil directly over the flames. He thought that I had lost my mind! I told him that he would witness things in my home that he had never seen before! Another time he asked me if my meat would still be kosher if he touched it! His questions certainly kept me on my toes!

I gave birth to my first daughter in the near-by country hospital erev Sukkos. The cleaning person on staff wanted to know if she was permitted to “Hoover” (vacuum) during my holiday!

Upon my arrival home, a Staff sergeant and his wife (both non-Jewish) decided that I needed a shomer to stay with me and my daughter while my husband conducted services.

Two years later, upon the birth of my second daughter, I got a phone call from this same sergeant. He wanted to know why my mother, was a “strange” woman?

Because I was still in the hospital, my husband could not stay at home with my mother and therefore slept on the chapel floor in his office. I guess that my dear husband was too literal in his biblical explanation. While I tried to control my hysterics, I gave the sergeant a clear explanation for my husband’s actions.

A few months before I gave birth, it was not only Friday night, but Shavuous as well.

The base was involved in a mock war game, which necessitated that all residents of the base blacken out their windows. Since this was impossible for us, my husband thought that he was covered by explaining to the military police that while he could not turn out the lights, he would close the curtains.

Some time later, there was a knock on the door.

The police officer ordered by husband to turn out the light (on Shabbos/Yom Tov) by order of the base commander.

My husband refused. He explained that since this was not a matter of true pikuach nefesh (danger to life), he was forbidden to do so for religious reasons. He invited the officer to turn out the lights not knowing that this was against military regulations.

The police officer retreated with the situation at a stand-still.

We passed an uneasy Shabbos.

Motzei Shabbos my husband stormed into the police station to demand an explanation. He was threatened with being locked up if he didn’t calm down! At that point he made the decision to go uninvited the following Monday to explain a few things to the base commander who had initiated the original order.

My husband explained to him that the only IG (Inspector General) that he listens to is Hashem! He asked the officer, who outranked my husband, if he understood. If not, he would go over his head! The officer got the message. In fact, as a result of this contretemps the official Air Force regulations were changed in writing to note that in the future, a Jewish officer could not be ordered to desecrate Shabbos if there was no danger to life, or limb.

A few days later, the base commander’s wife offered to baby-sit for my daughter when I gave birth!

Our tour of duty was ending and we had decisions to make. We were blessed with two long-awaited children and had to decide if we would continue in the military, or if we would return to civilian life.

To be continued…..

by Penina Metal

Penina Metal is a graduate of Stern College for Women. A free-lance writer, she focuses primarily on topics of Jewish interest.