Plenty of rabbis lead their congregation's book club, but Jon Cutler
may be the only one who does so from a war zone. Cutler, the spiritual leader of Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel in Warrington, Pa., for eight years, has been serving in Iraq since November as a U.S. Navy commander.
The only Jewish Navy and Marine chaplain in Iraq, he
is attempting to create a "viable Jewish community" at the five U.S. Navy bases in western Iraq with Shabbat services, learning programs and even a bet midrash.
, in his
early 50s, is staying in touch with his
Reconstructionist congregation in Bucks County.He
receives four to five e-mails per day from congregants and continues to guide the book club, which meets every four to six weeks at a local Panera Bread bakery-cafe in Montgomeryville.
The book chosen for discussion is sent to Cutler
They arrived with questions, insights and research on the subject, most of which were directed to Cutler
joined the meeting via phone from 6,000 miles away.
But the book wasn't the only thing on some minds.Before Cutler
came on the line, congregants Thaierry Steenberghs and John Green talked about how best to bake challah that will stay fresh for the weeklong air mail journey to Cutler's base.
called Steenberghs' cell phone, and the room hushed so everyone could hear the rabbi.
At the end of the talk about Aaron's book, Cutler
spoke about the situation in Iraq.
"The troops' spirits are pretty good," he
Asked about recent bombings in Baghdad, Cutler
explained that insurgent activity has risen since the dust storms subsided-a correlation between weather and terrorism that had not occurred to his
The rabbi was on the phone for an hour and a half. Cutler
says that his
faith has "grown stronger" in Iraq and his
prayers are "more spiritual and intense because of where we are." Cutler, a 1987 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, will remain in western Iraq until early next year.He
is based at the Marine air base Al Asad in the Anbar province of Iraq and recently was promoted to wing commander.
The chaplain says he
has been especially impressed with the unity among people of different faiths in Iraq.
"The world of Navy chaplaining is a great example of how people should really live-with respect and tolerance," he
While congregants say Cutler
is sorely missed, they believe something beneficial has come from the difficult situation.