For Lt. Cmdr. Laurie Lans, there is always another Jew to be found.
While on active duty and living abroad in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, Lans spent part of her time seeking out those other Jews, hoping to create Jewish communities wherever she could — whether that took the form of a giant menorah lighting or three people gathering for Shabbat dinner with challah and grape juice.
“Hashem never sends anybody where there isn’t another Jew. That’s what I try to share with people,” said Lans, who now lives in Fort Drum, N.Y. She was in Pittsburgh to speak at Chabad of the South Hills’ annual women’s event on Tuesday, April 24.
“If you leave here knowing that Hashem knows you,” she said, “that is the best thing.”
The event, in its 12th year, is designed to inspire Jewish women and offer them a place to connect with one another, said Batya Rosenblum, co-director of Chabad of the South Hills. She invited Lans to speak because of her experience connecting to Judaism in some of the remotest parts of the world.
“This is something she is very passionate about, sharing the journey and how she’s been able to connect to Jews throughout the world,” Rosenblum said. “I’m hoping that [the attendees] will take away a renewed sense of Jewish pride, and that when someone can be strong in their Jewish values, they can take it on the road wherever they go.”
Speaking to a crowd of about 75 people, Lans talked about how she maintained the traditions of Judaism while living abroad, from receiving kosher food supplies from a friendly Jewish member of her unit to using an ocean in South Korea as a makeshift mikvah to walking miles through the desert to make it to a synagogue for the High Holy Days as often as she could.
One Chanukah, in an attempt to both bring together Jews in the area and encourage other members of the community to learn more about Judaism, Lans took it upon herself to host a giant menorah lighting. She planned the event for Dec. 25, not realizing until much later what that day signified for the majority of the population.
At the lighting, Lans asked each person how they were able to get the time off work to attend. Fellow non-Jewish soldiers, they told her, offered to work for them, despite the date, telling them, “You have to be at the menorah.”
On one trip to Kuwait and Iraq, she decided to hide her Jewish identity, hoping to protect herself and Israel in case someone mistook her connection as a sign that Israel was involved in the conflict. She asked for a new passport to remove her trips to Israel and new dog tags that declared she had “no religious preference,” rather than stating she was Jewish.
She also removed her mother’s necklace, which was designed like a chai, in case anyone in Iraq recognized the symbol.
Later on, she said, “I prayed to Hashem and said, ‘Please take me back to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I promise to be a proud Jew.’”
Lans encouraged the women in the South Hills to find their own ways of holding on to Jewish traditions and connecting to Judaism. She told them to start small, like adding kosher meat to their diet or deciding to light Shabbat candles even if they decide to go the movies afterward.
“It’s not all or nothing,” she said. “You do what you can do to be the best Jew you can and grow every year.”
Carol Rose, a member of the planning committee for the event, said she was inspired by Lans’ ability to see God, find a way to be Jewish and love her Judaism wherever she was.
“If it wasn’t there, she put it there,” Rose said. “You can take your feeling and your love of God anywhere in the world and make it work.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.