On Dec. 4, the fourth night of Hanukka, Lt. David Simpkins joined with hundreds of other Jews at a public menora lighting.
What made this particular holiday ritual unusual was that Simpkins was in his barracks in Afghanistan, while his fellow celebrants were in a mall in New Jersey.
Serving with the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, Simpkins was linked via on-line video to a celebration sponsored by Chabad of East Brunswick at the Brunswick Square Mall.
In an e-mail to NJJN, Simpkins, of Trumbull, Conn., later said the experience “lifted my soul over here in Kandahar.”
To experience Hanukka, even via webcam, he said, “reminded me of how wonderful life is for us in the United States and the freedoms most of us take for granted every day.”
He said that seeing the holiday gathering, “hearing the music, and listening to the speeches…made me feel at home in my heart. Talking to all the wonderful people was the greatest gift because it was the closest in months I have come to experiencing the Jewish community that everyone typically enjoys on Shabbat.”
In the e-mail, Simpkins said troop morale remains high as soldiers work to free the Afghan people from the repressive Taliban.
“No one can understand how fortunate the blessing [of religious freedom] is as much as the Jews,” he told NJJN. He said he was grateful for those gathered in the East Brunswick mall and is “honored to continue to serve them and the people of the United States….”
He said that everyone should remember “that the struggle to keep ourselves free to practice our faith is no less important than it was for the Maccabees….”
Chabad director Rabbi Aryeh Goodman said Chabad worked with the military for some time on the program, which included sending packages to troops overseas for the holidays.
Goodman made the connection with Simpkins through his position as chaplain at the Chelsea at East Brunswick senior residence. Earlier, when recreation director Carrie-Ann Basulto’s husband, Alex, was home on leave from Afghanistan, he visited Chabad’s Chai Central after-school program on Veterans’ Day, at Goodman’s request.
When another Jewish soldier who had originally been selected for the Hanukka hook-up was transferred from Kandahar, Alex Basulto, back in Afghanistan, asked Simpkins if he would step in.
As the crowd watched, Simpkins picked up a menora and brought it close to the screen. After local officials and community members lit the giant menora set up just outside JC Penney at the mall, the soldier joined in reciting the blessings.
Simpkins continued to watch and listen as a live band performed and people danced a hora and feasted on latkes. He smiled as children decorated holiday cookies, made holiday crafts, and waved to the far-off soldier.
Joining in the celebration were East Brunswick Mayor David Stahl; Middlesex County Freeholders director Christopher Rufano; and Anthony Resnick, chief of staff to state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Dist. 18).
Some people put in earphones and spoke with Simpkins. “I just asked him when is he coming home,” said eight-year-old Jason Friedman of East Brunswick. “I wanted to tell him I really appreciate him being there.”
As she helped her young daughter, Abigail, and her daughter’s friend, Eden Shemaryahu, make holiday cards, Nurit Mor of East Brunswick said, “We are happy to be here and be part of this lighting with our troops. We light candles at home every day but to be able to light them with our troops is really special.”