Sidelined soldier focusing on Jewish comrades' needs

Charity: Recalling his trouble staying observant in Iraq, an Army specialist has begun an effort to send items to others who share his faith and his plight.

March 11, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Among the dozens of boxes that line the walls of Joe Kashnow's new apartment in Pikesville are four, marked "Marines." Inside sit pots and pans, hot-water heaters, potato peelers and can openers, all headed for his fellow Jewish soldiers serving in Iraq.

Kashnow, a specialist in the Army's 4th Infantry Division, was wounded last fall when insurgents set off a bomb, striking a convoy he was helping protect on a highway north of Baghdad. As he continues to recover from fractured bones and heavy muscle loss caused by shrapnel, he is beginning a new life trying to help the Jewish soldiers he left behind.

Kashnow, 25, who says he struggled to keep observant in Iraq, established the Jewish Soldier Foundation earlier this year to help meet the needs of observant Jews serving at home and abroad. While other Jewish organizations send matzo and religious books, he is sending secular items based on requests soldiers channel through a Baltimore rabbi serving with the military in Iraq.

The boxes in Kashnow's apartment are bound for Iraq for next month's celebration of Passover. After that, he plans to send more items to Jewish soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

"I'll be sending whatever they ask for," said Kashnow, who lumbers about the apartment with his right calf encased in a cage-like cast. "I feel very much involved with Jewish soldiers when I do this."

Kashnow, who grew up in Baltimore, said he was inspired to start his small foundation - he's raised about $2,500 so far - because of frustrations he faced trying to remain observant. He described struggling to find kosher "MREs" (Meals Ready To Eat) and arguing with a superior over Sabbath observance.

Kashnow recalled one incident in which he said his staff sergeant ordered him to accompany him to lift weights on a Friday evening, the start of the Jewish Sabbath. He responded that he needed to pray. "He told me he was giving me a direct order," he said. "I told him he could stick his direct order."

He acknowledged that other soldiers, particularly those of higher rank, did not have as many problems. Military regulations direct commanding officers to accommodate religious observance as long as it does not "have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards or discipline."

In practice, this often means that as long as soldiers tell commanding officers in advance of their requirement to observe the Sabbath or their need for kosher MREs, the military usually helps out, said Rabbi Nathan M. Landman, deputy director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, the primary endorsing agency for Jewish chaplains in the armed services.

"The military is very strong on pluralism and recognizing minorities," said Landman, a retired Air Force chaplain, who estimates there are 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in the military.

To learn what soldiers need, Kashnow communicates via e-mail with Lt. Col. Mitchell S. Ackerson, the rabbi who is senior Jewish chaplain in Iraq and also works in Afghanistan. Ackerson, a Baltimorean, serves as director of Pastoral Care and Chaplaincy for Lifebridge Health, which includes Sinai Hospital and Northwest Hospital Center.

Ackerson said soldiers appreciate the goods sent because it gives them a sense that their efforts are recognized back home.

"Just this weekend in Afghanistan, I gave out items that came from two girls from Baltimore as gifts for Purim," Ackerson wrote in an e-mail. "I had soldiers teary-eyed that 12-year-old girls would do that for them."

Kashnow said he will leave the military this year, taking medical retirement. He hopes the foundation will allow him to help his brethren overseas.

"Even when I'm out and I'm no longer part of it, these guys are still over there," he said. "They are doing a great service for us, and they deserve to be taken care of."

To learn more about the Jewish Soldier Foundation visit www.jewishsoldier.org

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