They are a family known for their hard work and community involvement. For her part, Mrs. Batya Travis has made an indelible imprint on the Far Rockaway and Five Towns community with her organizational skills and singing that are showcased before exclusively female audiences for entertainment as well as to raise funds for important local organizations.
So while it may have been just a bit surprising, it did not come as a huge shock that if there was a young man out there who felt compelled to serve his country and people in some unique fashion, he would carry the Travis name.
And that’s where we found 34-year-old Ephraim Travis last week, in, of all places, Iraq. He is serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, and in our communication by e-mail throughout the last few days, he described to me his experiences since enlisting last year. We couldn’t talk by phone for security reasons or for reasons of official policy, and he had to have my questions and his answers cleared by higher-ups in the military chain of command.
Ephraim will be in Baghdad for Pesach, where he will be conducting Sedarim for about 100 soldiers (most of them Jewish, of course). The exchange between Batya Travis and the Five Towns Jewish Times began last Sunday as she reached out to ask whether we could recommend where her son, Chaplain Travis, could turn in order to put together the necessities for a Pesach Seder for his troops in Iraq beyond the bare minimum provided by the government.
While they will receive shemurah matzah courtesy of the Aleph Institute (throughout the year they receive challah from Cedarhurst resident Marla Turk), Chaplain Travis is hoping that the community in which he was born and raised will be able to put together the foodstuffs to make this year’s Seder under his direction that much more meaningful for the men and women in the service who will be joining him on Pesach night.
Travis says that the military provides him with kosher MREs (meals ready to eat) as well as kosher-for-Passover MREs. These contain the very basics, and he believes or at least hopes that people on the outside like us will be able to help out to enhance the yom tov experience for those serving to defend and protect our country.
“Whatever the community can do would be a tremendous chesed,” he says. “I am not a rav or a talmid chacham,” he adds, “but when I heard of the challenges that the Jewish personnel face to have a Seder, I couldn’t help but think that they qualify for ma’os chitim as well as ma’aser k’safim,” Travis says.
As we go to press, we received word from the management of Gourmet Glatt in Cedarhurst that they are responding to the call of duty and assembling Passover foodstuffs for the Travis group and will be shipping the goods out over the next few days.
Of his own situation ministering to the troops on his base, Travis describes himself as fairly comfortable and safe. “However, some of those who will be attending the Seder in Baghdad put their lives on the line every day. May I humbly suggest that the community do what it can as a small gesture of gratitude” to the soldiers?”
In our exchange of e-mails, I asked Ephraim what it’s like being an observant Jew in an Arab country. “It’s definitely interesting,” he writes. “I try to always maintain situational awareness. I am a battalion chaplain for a wonderful group of men and women. They have graciously accepted me with open arms and do what they can to take care of me as I take care of them.
“I have soldiers here of very diverse backgrounds and faiths, some with no faith at all. I respect every single one of them and I appreciate their service, commitment, and sacrifices as they appreciate me by giving it their all to safeguard me. For example, some of the personnel from other units seemed a little unnerved about my wearing a yarmulke in the dining room. Some of them talked to my chaplain’s assistant and told her that I should remove it. Baruch Hashem she is a strong-willed person that stood her ground. She told them that if they have a problem with me they should address whatever is bothering them directly with me. I haven’t heard a further word about the matter.”
Ephraim Travis was living in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife and children until he was divorced several years ago. He enlisted in a chaplaincy program-the Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course-at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and graduated in December 2010. He was deployed to Iraq about seven weeks ago, so it is still quite a new experience. He enlisted for a three-year stint.
Asked to describe what the average Jewish soldier he’s encountered is like, he says, “I don’t know if there is a prototypical Jewish soldier, as there isn’t a prototypical Jew. We come in all shapes and sizes, although being in the military it is closer to one size and shape. However, I would say that if there is one thing that brings out their identity in the service if it hasn’t already emerged, it is the yomim tovim.”
Ephraim Travis points out that while he is visibly an observant Jew, he does not minister only to the Jewish soldiers. “I am a battalion chaplain, which means I minister to all my soldiers regardless of race, religion, or gender. My job is to perform and provide for the free exercise of religion as stated in . . . the U.S. Constitution. Secondary to that function is my responsibility to the Jewish personnel in theater and/or [on] base.”
Chaplain Travis, as he stated previously, has an excellent chaplain’s assistant who is very protective of him. He described a time a week or so ago when he had to go to another base in Iraq to cover for a chaplain that was on leave. His chaplain’s assistant had to hand him over to one of her counterparts on the other base. “She said to her counterpart with tears in her eyes that he had better take care of her chaplain and that he really needs to pay close attention because Chaplain Travis is the only rabbi in Iraq and he is my chaplain.” He says that he is so very grateful that she takes her job so seriously, and that he considers himself extremely fortunate that she is his teammate.
Note: You can write to Chaplain Ephraim Travis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Arye Nisonson for the Five Towns Jewish Times.