Marines’ First Jewish Chaplain

— by Paul J. Newman

Iwo_gittelsohnThe fight for Iwo Jima in 1945 was one of the bloodiest of World War II. A tiny island in the Pacific dominated by a volcanic mountain and pockmarked with caves, Iwo Jima was the setting for a five-week, non-stop battle between 70,000 American Marines and an unknown number of deeply entrenched Japanese defenders. The courage and gallantry of the American forces, climaxed by the dramatic raising of the American flag over Mt. Suribachi, is memorialized in the Marine Corps monument in Washington, DC. Less remembered, however, is that the battle occasioned an eloquent eulogy by a Marine Corps rabbi that has become an American classic.

Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn (1910-1995), assigned to the Fifth Marine Division, was the first Jewish chaplain the Marine Corps ever appointed. The American invading force at Iwo Jima included approximately 1,500 Jewish Marines. Rabbi Gittelsohn was in the thick of the fray, ministering to Marines of all faiths in the combat zone. He shared the fear, horror and despair of the fighting men, each of whom knew that each day might be his last. Roland Gittelsohn’s tireless efforts to comfort the wounded and encourage the fearful won him three service ribbons.

When the fighting was over, Division Chaplain Warren Cuthriell, a Protestant minister, asked Rabbi Gittelsohn to deliver the memorial sermon at a combined religious service dedicating the Marine Cemetery. Cuthriell wanted all the fallen Marines – black and white, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish – honored in a single, nondenominational ceremony. Unfortunately, racial and religious prejudice was strong in the Marine Corps, as it was then throughout America. According to Rabbi Gittelsohn, the majority of Christian chaplains objected to having a rabbi preach over predominantly Christian graves. The Catholic chaplains, in keeping with church doctrine, opposed any form of joint religious service.

To his credit, Cuthriell refused to alter his plans. Rabbi Gittelsohn, on the other hand, wanted to save his friend Cuthriell further embarrassment and so decided it was best not to deliver his sermon. Instead, three separate religious services were held. At the Jewish service, to a congregation of 70 or so who attended, Rabbi Gittelsohn delivered the powerful eulogy he originally wrote for the combined service:

Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago, helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor… together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men, there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy…

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn duty, sacred duty do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price…

We here solemnly swear that this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.

Among Rabbi Gittelsohn’s listeners were three Protestant chaplains so incensed by the prejudice voiced by their colleagues that they boycotted their own service to attend Rabbi Gittelsohn’s. One of them borrowed the manuscript and, unknown to Rabbi Gittelsohn, circulated several thousand copies to his regiment. Some Marines enclosed the copies in letters to their families. An avalanche of coverage resulted. Time published excerpts, which wire services spread even further. The entire sermon was inserted into the Congressional Record. The Army released the eulogy for short-wave broadcast to American troops throughout the world and radio commentator Robert St. John read it on his program and on many succeeding Memorial Days.

The Traveling Rabbi


Photo by Sgt. Christine Samples
U.S. Army Chaplain Lt. Col. Avi Weiss wears a prayer shawl during Shabbat, a service held at the beginning of Sabbath, in the camp’s chapel Feb. 24, Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. He made his first visit to Leatherneck since his December arrival in theater.

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – There’s just not enough rabbis to go around. That’s why the only U.S. military rabbi currently serving in Afghanistan travels regularly from his base at Kandahar Airfield to other military camps here and uses the Internet to reach his congregation. It’s not a conventional role for a rabbi, but it helps him reach more people.

Army chaplain, Lt. Col. Avi Weiss of Chicago, a father of three and grandfather of 11, recently made his first visit to Camp Leatherneck since his December arrival in theater.

He looks younger than his 61 years and has a friendly, approachable manner. His attire consists of the Army uniform and a black yarmulke that miraculously stays on his shaved head with the help of some bobby pins. His eyes rest on each person individually when he’s talking in a group, like an unspoken invitation for each one’s thoughts.

Anyone who wants to jump in the conversation, however, needs to act quickly. Keeping up with Weiss’ train of thought isn’t easy. He jumps from one topic to another and back again. It’s a habit that his wife, Elcya, teases him about often. Fortunately, Weiss stays on topic during services.

Before Shabbat, the Friday evening service observing the Sabbath, Weiss sat on a bench in Leatherneck’s simple, wooden chapel to talk about his ministry.

“Attempting to keep traditional Jewish laws is difficult in this environment,” said Weiss, explaining the shortage of rabbis in the military. “It’s a credit to the military that it does a lot to help someone practice their faith, but it’s still not necessarily the choice environment for someone who wants to live a certain way.”

More after the jump.
It may not be a choice environment for some, but the military managed to attract Weiss in 1974 and keep him for 37 years as an active duty and Reserve chaplain. He first joined just for the job, but stayed for the unique opportunity to minister.

“I really enjoy the military,” said Weiss. “I don’t want to be a synagogue rabbi. I enjoy jumping out of airplanes (with the 82nd Airborne Division). I really enjoy being in Afghanistan. You can touch people’s lives in ways you can’t possibly do in other places.”

Weiss joked that because people can’t go downtown on Friday nights, they’re more open to attending services, which makes his job easier.

Although people can’t hang out downtown, Weiss still has his work cut out for him. Schedules here make it difficult for some to attend services. Five came to Shabbat, but Weiss said he concentrates on individuals, not numbers.

The Jewish population in the military falls well below 1 percent according to Department of Defense statistics, but Weiss believes the actual numbers are higher and some just need to know they’re not alone.

“I try to encourage individuals to think about being more involved in their faith,” said Weiss. “I’m not really involved with the Afghanistan war or the issues. I’m more concerned with the individuals here. I can make a little bit of difference in someone’s life; even one person.”

Because he can’t be everywhere, Weiss stays connected with the community through the Internet. He uses email to answer questions and give advice to lay leaders who perform services when no rabbi is available. He also started an online newsletter, Kol Torah, with the help of his wife in Heidelberg, Germany. The newsletter keeps the community here informed of events and educates them on Jewish culture.

So while there may not be enough rabbis to go around, Jewish service members aren’t left on their own. Weiss uses the Internet and travel to make sure they get as much support as possible.