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Far From Home, Jewish Sailors in Gulf Region Celebrate Hanukkah

December 16, 1990

ABOARD THE USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (AP) _ It was an unusual Hanukkah celebration: Jewish sailors on a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Red Sea, lighting menorahs as they sail past Arab countries traditionally hostile to Israel.

For the dozen or so Jewish sailors aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, Hanukkah, the festival of lights, has been a time to reflect on their deployment in the Middle East.

″This is where the Jewish people became a people, and on Hanukkah as we light the lights, we recall the suffering and joys of our ancestors as a people,″ said Navy Lt. Robert S. Feinberg, a rabbi from New York, as he led prayers for peace in the Persian Gulf on Friday, the fourth night of Hanukkah.

It has also been a time to cast aside worries about war and briefly indulge in some of the joys of Hanukkah - plentiful potato pancakes and games of dreidel, a four-sided spinning top with Hebrew letters on each side.

Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Friedman, 33, of Massapequa, N.Y., said he felt he was fighting for the same principle as the Jews did in 167 B.C., when the Maccabees defeated the Syrians and the Temple of Jerusalem was rededicated. Hanukkah commemorates that rededication.

″We’re here standing up for freedom against an oppressor,″ he said. ″Of course, my parents would rather have me home, but they’re proud of me that I’m serving and standing up for freedom.″

Lt. Toby Bacaner, 31, of Minneapolis, the air wing’s flight surgeon, said: ″When the United States goes somewhere, we bring American values with us and we practice them here.″

Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Shasteen, 23, of Dallas, said Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein has to be stopped.

″I know it sounds gung-ho. I’ll die for my country. It doesn’t bother me. I’ll die for something that’s right, and I think this is very right,″ he said.

The U.S. military has refused to allow the media to attend any religious services in Saudi Arabia, where all religions except Islam are banned. Several reporters visiting the Kennedy were allowed to attend Hanukkah services because the ship is in international waters.

The congregation on the Kennedy is led by Chief Petty Officer Sidney Cohen, 41, of Virginia Beach, Va., a senior cook who not only organizes weekly Sabbath services but has taught his staff to make potato pancakes and challah, the traditional Jewish bread.

Cohen received a commendation at a Hanukkah dinner Saturday from Rear Adm. Riley D. Mixson, commander of Navy operations in the Red Sea, for his service to the Jewish community.

Chief Petty Officer Alfred Lasure, 42, of Vineland, N.J., who works on the flight deck, said that historically the Jews and Arabs are cousins, and if they retraced their roots perhaps they could learn to coexist.

For Chief Petty Officer Gary Love, 39, of Birmingham, Ala., the air wing’s damage control chief, coming to Hanukkah services was ″a way to be with your family when you’re not with your family.″

″The other night all of us were down on the floor playing with dreidels - a bunch of grown men on the mightiest warship in the Navy playing dreidel,″ he said. The game is traditionally played by children on Hanukkah.

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