One of the many wonderful things I love about living in Ramat Beit Shemesh is that I’m able to meet Jews from all over the world who have made aliyah and often have many interesting experiences to share. Rabbi Nosson Sachs, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, served as a chaplain in the United States Army before his aliyah eight years ago. In 2006, when Rabbi Sachs was working as a reserve chaplain, he received a phone call from Washington asking if he would be willing to travel to Afghanistan for the High Holy Days and Sukkos. Thinking about the huge opportunity for kiruv to be had in such a mission, Rabbi Sachs was thrilled. I was privileged to sit with Rabbi Sachs in his home while he told me his story, one that is filled with hashgachah pratis.
Rabbi Sachs traveled to Afghanistan to lead the services, which were open to all soldiers looking to pray, even non-Jews. Before he left, he told the authorities that he would need certain supplies: prayer books, kosher rations, a sukkah, etc. When he arrived at the Bagram Air Base, the senior chaplain, a Presbyterian, showed him two large canvas bags containing a sukkah and “roofing material.” Based on feedback he’d received during Yom Kippur, Rabbi Sachs was expecting 11 soldiers for Sukkos so the large sukkah which these bags contained seemed perfect for everyone to sit comfortably.
Four days before Sukkos, Rabbi Sachs went to assemble the sukkah. But as he opened the canvas covers, all he found were the broken parts of one small pop-up sukkah and a 4x4 mat. This was not going to work. Rabbi Sachs had to come up with a plan B, and fast. He would need to have a sukkah built from scratch.
He began searching the area for scrap wood. Behind one of the huts, he came across a large unused bag of camouflage netting. This was under the jurisdiction of the Moral Recreation and Welfare Sergeant, who told Rabbi Sachs that the netting had been laying around there unused for two years. When Rabbi Sachs explained to the sergeant what he was planning to do, the sergeant offered the netting to Rabbi Sachs. Rabbi Sachs took the netting to serve as the walls of the sukkah.
He drew up sketches of a sukkah frame and brought them to the sergeant major involved in the engineering corps of the base to ask if they could build it. The sergeant was more than happy to help but said they would first need to get a series of approvals. When Rabbi Sachs told him that he needed the sukkah to be ready by Friday, the sergeant actually laughed. He informed Rabbi Sachs that the sukkah could be ready by November. Just getting approval from the commanding staff would take a week. This was not the answer Rabbi Sachs was hoping for. On to Plan C. Rabbi Sachs would have to draw the materials from Building Supply and build the sukkah by himself. His plan was to use the chapel as one wall of the sukkah and screw the sukkah into that wall so that it wouldn’t blow away in the strong wind that picked up every late afternoon.
The Presbyterian chaplain told Rabbi Sachs not to worry about getting the signatures. He would take care of it. He drove around the base from one stop to another hand delivering the papers that needed to be signed. By the end of the day, he had all the signatures in hand. With the help of angels along the way, things were slowly beginning to fall into place.
The next morning, Rabbi Sachs went to the base’s building supplies store. Although most of the structures in the country were mud huts, the two Bosnian Muslims who ran the store had never heard of a sukkah before. Yet, they were eager to help Rabbi Sachs. With the exception of metal brackets, they said they would be able to fill his order by Thursday morning, two days before Sukkos.
Now Rabbi Sachs had to get hold of metal brackets, not a simple feat in Bagram Air Base. He considered traveling to Kabul to buy them, but with roadside bombs and snipers along the way, the trip would be too dangerous. He drove around the base for an hour looking for a solution until he came upon a building where aluminum air conditioning ducts were made. The man inside, an Afghani Muslim, spoke little English but he gave Rabbi Sachs a catalog and asked that he show him what he needed. The man was excited to make something he doesn’t usually make, and insisted on making many more than the twenty Rabbi Sachs had requested. When he returned two hours later, he found that the man had made seventy brackets. He also lent Rabbi Sachs a drill and bits.
Civilians would visit the base from time to time to entertain and lift the morale of the soldiers. At that time, a group of comedians had been visiting the base. Although they had no trouble traveling to the base, they were having trouble getting out. They kept getting bumped from their flights because, in wartime, soldiers and military supplies take priority over civilians when it comes to flying out of the base. The group was becoming disgruntled, especially since one of the comedians was scheduled to get married the following week. He just had to get out. Rabbi Sachs sat with the groom in the Mess Hall and prayed with him.
On Thursday morning, Rabbi Sachs got the wood and screws he had ordered and began to build the sukkah. He had ordered wooden beams to serve as the frame of the sukkah, but the only beams available were twelve feet long. Rabbi Sachs got hold of a saw and began cutting. This was going to take some time, but he received help from a very unlikely source.
The very unhappy groom happened to walk by as Rabbi Sachs was cutting the wooden beams and asked what he was doing. Rabbi Sachs explained that he was building a sukkah. The groom had never heard of a sukkah, so Rabbi Sachs gave him a crash course on the subject. When the groom heard the explanation, he practically began to jump up and down. Rabbi Sachs couldn’t understand why he was suddenly so happy. The groom explained that he finally understood why he was stuck on the base. He was a carpenter by trade. He said that G-d must have placed him in that exact place at that exact time so that he would be able to help Rabbi Sachs build his sukkah. He also believed that helping Rabbi Sachs build his sukkah would be his ticket off the base. He was ecstatic. He ran and got his friends to help. The comedians worked together with Rabbi Sachs, and within three hours the frame was up. As he predicted, the groom and his friends were on the next flight home! Rabbi Sachs then brought the netting which he had never measured to the sukkah, and miraculously, it fit!
The only thing left was schach. It was announced at a general staff meeting on the morning of erev Yom Tov that the chaplain would be pruning trees for religious purposes. Originally Rabbi Sachs had planned to walk through the river in the valley and cut bullrushes, but he was told that the Russians had mined the area so that the locals would be unable to get water. He was left to cut branches with a small saw. A female captain who had heard about Rabbi Sach’s mission at the general’s meeting came by and whipped out a blade with a saw which she offered him to make the cutting a bit easier for him. A Red Cross volunteer who had a Jewish grandfather and who had attended Rabbi Sach’s services came by in a pickup truck and helped him load up the branches and bring them to the sukkah.
Very strong wind storms typically hit the area of the base every afternoon. The winds threatened to blow the branches off the sukkah. But Hashem continued to look after Rabbi Sachs and help him in his holy endeavor. Just as Rabbi Sachs finished putting up the sukkah, the wind slowed to a gentle breeze. It did not return again in force until Sukkos was over.
On Friday night, eleven Jewish soldiers joined Rabbi Sachs in the sukkah. They enjoyed a lovely meal as well as singing and divrei Torah. During the week, Rabbi Sachs invited the soldiers into the sukkah to sit, make a brachah, bench lulav and esrog, eat, and learn Mishnayos with him. For most of them, this was their first time sitting in a sukkah and feeling Hashem’s embrace. And Rabbi Sachs felt the hug of Hashem as well, as He helped him every step of the way to provide the soldiers with an inspiring experience that they will never forget.