Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2012

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A rabbi in Afghanistan

A rabbi in Afghanistan
Larry Bazer '85 in a village outside Kabul, where his National Guard unit was building a new school and well, in August 2011, Bazer's first month in Afghanistan.

Larry Bazer '85

by Whit Richardson '02


In his “normal life,” Larry Bazer '85 serves as rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Framingham, Mass. He's married with two children. He likes to watch movies, read books and go scuba diving when he can.

But normalcy was put on hold last August, when Bazer deployed to Afghanistan as a chaplain with the Massachusetts Army National Guard's 26th “Yankee” Brigade, stationed at Camp Phoenix outside Kabul. It was his first deployment since joining the military as a chaplain in 1989 during his post-graduate rabbinical studies. He was drawn to enlist for the experiences unavailable at seminary. “And I've always had a love of the military,” he added in a Skype interview from his military housing in December. “I guess I see myself sort of as G.I. Jew.”

At Camp Phoenix, Bazer was chaplain to his brigade and led Friday-night Jewish services. But as a lieutenant colonel he was also senior chaplain of the region — “a chaplain to my chaplains” who oversaw religious activities for more than 10,000 soldiers at several bases.

The Army National Guard's only rabbi in Afghanistan, Bazer assumed leadership of the Jewish military community. He helped form Congregation B'nai Kabul with about 15 members, and donned body armor to travel throughout the region offering services during the High Holy Days and Hanukkah, for which the military flew in extra rabbis.

Though most of his job was administrative, Bazer provided counsel when needed. In October, when a bomb destroyed a bus in Kabul carrying soldiers and civilian military employees, some of whom Bazer knew, he offered counseling and led the memorial service. “Those are reminders that it can be very dangerous here,” he said.

Bazer went “outside the wire” fairly often, giving him a chance to see what people at home often do not. “As the military, we're out there not just to get bad guys and the Taliban or the insurgents who want to disrupt the way of life here,” he said. “A huge piece of what the U.S. military does is help strengthen and secure Afghanistan. That I feel very proud to be a part of.”

On the way back from one such trip to a rural community where his unit was building a school, Bazer looked out the window of his armored vehicle and saw a caravan of camels. “Automatically I thought of Connecticut College,” he said.

Bazer, who majored in zoology, credits his professors with teaching him to think critically, a skill that “became invaluable both as a rabbi and my work as a military chaplain.” He used interview techniques he gleaned as a student admission associate to help prepare homeward-bound soldiers for their impending job search. “I learned skills that have remained with me my entire life, and I owe that to Connecticut College,” he said.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Bazer led a service on his base. A decade earlier he had been a rabbi on Long Island and chaplain for the New York National Guard and the FBI's state offices. He spent several days at Ground Zero after the towers fell. “So that has weighed very heavily on my mind — of the awesomeness of what it means to be part of this for 10 years,” he said. “It's come very much full circle.”

His deployment, which ended in February, wasn't without sacrifice. He missed both his children's birthdays and his wedding anniversary. Though Skype allowed him to chat with his family most evenings, technology didn't completely ameliorate the sense of absence. “The hardest experience — and I think every soldier in my unit would say this — is being away from family and friends,” Bazer said. “But my family is very proud of me. And my congregation is proud that their rabbi is serving our nation, and making a difference here.”


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