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.

Jewish Federations of North America to Honor Jewish Service

253389_10151475517362099_1186874433_n– by Marla Cohen

The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly will hold a ceremony honoring the Jewish military personnel who have served the U.S. on Tuesday, November 11, Veteran’s Day, at the National Harbor in Maryland.

The program will begin at 1:30 p.m. at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at 201 Waterfront Street, and will include both active-duty and retired chaplains who will share their own personal experiences serving Jewish men and women of the U.S. armed forces.

In addition to readings from the chaplains’ wartime experiences, the tribute will include video saluting the service of Jews in the military between World War I and the present. The Jewish Chapel Choir of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point will also take part in the ceremony.

The Jewish Community Centers’ Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) program will take center stage at the ceremony. JWB was created to administer to Jewish servicemen’s needs, and to vouch for the authenticity of the rabbis serving as chaplains. JWB’s chairman, Rabbi Frank Waldorf, said that “three dozen rabbis serve an estimated 10,000 American Jews serving around the globe.”

JWB is looking forward to its 100th anniversary, which will coincide with the U.S. entry into World War I.

A Lesson From Israel on How to Honor Veterans

What if Americans spent two minutes in silence, to honor their nation’s veterans?

The World, produced by Andrea Crossan (PRI).

On Yom Hazikaron a 2-minute siren is played on the air-raid system. The custom that has developed is that during those two minutes everyone stops what they are doing and stands still.

Michael and Daniel Bendetson saw how Israelis honor their veterans on Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) and wondered why we couldn’t do the same.

The Bendetsons were standing with their father, Peter, on a Tel Aviv sidewalk in 2010 when the sirens sounded before 120 seconds of reflection.

“At 11 a.m., a siren sounded throughout the entire country,” explained Daniel Bendetson, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Michigan. “Hundreds of people at a busy intersection got out of their cars and stood at attention for two minutes to pay respects to those who really make the ultimate sacrifice.”

So the Bendetsons set out to have Veterans’ Day in the US include two minutes of silence.

The proposal passed the US House of Representatives last week as part of the annual defense bill. Under the House bill, the moment would be observed at 2:11 p.m. on Veterans Day on the East Coast and simultaneously across the country: 1:11 p.m. in Chicago, 11:11 a.m. in Los Angeles, and 9:11 a.m. in Honolulu.

Veterans Day: Honoring Red Ball Express Death Camp Liberators

Alexandra Bochova with Jewish War Veteran Paul Ouslander. Photo: Dan Benau.

Veterans Day Program Honoring African American Liberators of the Concentration Camps and the Special Unit Called “The Red Ball Express”

— by Lee Bender

It was an amazing contrast: a beautiful, mild Sunday afternoon outside on Veterans Day, November 11, 2012. But inside Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, Wynnewood, was honoring some special heroes of World War II who liberated concentration camps in Europe and witnessed some of the most heinous crimes in human history. In an incredibly moving program, before an audience of 225, including many students and scouts, tribute was paid to the African American soldiers of the U.S. Army who liberated the camps, many of whom were members of a segregated unit known as The Red Ball Express. This program, as in past years, was the brainchild of Ed “The Sage” Snyder of TBH-BE, and co-sponsored with the Israel Advocacy Committee and Mens Club. Special guests in attendance were from the neighboring Zion Baptist Church of Ardmore, and many survivors, liberators and prisoner of war, war veterans, Jewish war veterans and American Legion.

More after the jump.

Photo: Dan Benau.

The program began with Cantor Eugene Rosner leading the audience in the National Anthem. The Zion Baptist Church Choir then led a soulful rendering of the America The Beautiful.

Acting as M.C., Ed began by remarking how important it was that the students and youth, especially, learn and appreciate this important history- which is not being taught and has all but been forgotten. He also stated, almost incredibly, how much resistence he received from various groups and organizations in trying to put this program together.

Rabbi Neil Cooper next gave warm welcoming remarks to the veterans, liberators and the sizeable audience from the African American community, stressing the historic relationship and kinship with the Jewish community, both of whom emerged from slavery into freedom. Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El President Pam Feld Randel then thanked the community for coming together at the synagogue to celebrate this special occasion.

Alexandra Bochova. Photo: Richard Chaitt.

The first guest speaker was Alexandra Bochova, who joined the Russian Army at age 15, fighting through Eastern Europe and eventually liberating concentration camps with the Red Army. Her story was fascinating, and she wished she had more time to tell it. She came dressed in her splendid army uniform chocked full of medals. She spoke in Russian, which was translated by Marina Furman, a former refusenik and the current director of the Jewish National Fund in Philadelphia.

The Reverend James Pollard of Zion Baptist Church then spoke grandly and eloquently about honor and duty, and that this history is not only not being forgotten, but in fact his church has established a library and resource center about it. He also praised the connection and shared history of the Jewish and African American communities.

A short section of the film, Red Ball Express was then shown and introduced by Dan Benau, the son of a survivor. Dan is a movie and history buff on the Holocaust.

Arthur Seltzer, a veteran with the U.S. Army, who received innumerable medals and awards, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was a liberator who spoke at last year’s program, introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Leon Bass, a robust man of 87. It was very clear when Dr. Bass spoke that the audience was enraptured, by his cadence, confidence, and message. He was a young man from West Philadelphia, enlisted in the army, went down south for training and was shocked at the segregation and disdain of the African American soldiers, but he stood tall. He came to realize that his superiors and the culture deemed that he, an African American, was “not good enough” but yet expendable to fight for America. He was sent to Europe and told his story of fighting his way in the segregated African American units, and surviving while seeing death and destruction all around him. One day while they were in Germany, he was suddenly told by a superior officer to come with him to a concentration camp. He had never heard of such a thing, and was wholly unprepared for what they were to all see when they arrived to open Buchenwald. The most horrendous scene he could ever have imagined, he was an eyewitness to it all: the decrepit camp, the stench, the “walking dead”- nothing but skin and bones in pajamas, people who were barely alive, the crematoriums and gas chambers. It occurred to him that these innocent people were considered by the Germans to also “not be good enough to live.” It haunts him to this very day. Ultimately, he came home, finished his education, became a principal of Benjamin Franklin High School. One day in the early 1970s, a woman survivor came to school, and he was encouraged and inspired from then on to speak, speak out, and tell his story, which he has been doing ever since and vows to continue until his last days. The audience was spellbound. He is a real treasure.

Rabbi Neil Cooper. Photo: Richard Chaitt.

Ed then introduced the veterans and liberators in attendance, and paid respects to those from the community who had died in the past year. Unfortunately, too many of these heroes are dying with greater frequency, leaving fewer live eyewitnesses.

My son, Noah Bender, a high school student, then concluded the program at our synagogue by playing taps.

Many in the audience from the two communities stayed late afterwards to enjoy refreshments, meet and interact.

The program was videotaped for future preservation.

Keynote speaker, Dr. Leon Bass. Photo: Richard Chaitt.

Honoring Our Veterans

— by Hannah Lee

Today we observe Veterans Day.  May we all remember and honor the service given to our country by these brave men and women in uniform.  They upheld the values of our country and, as young as they were when sent into service, they gave it all they had.  We owe it to them to remember their service.

On October 18th, I attended a ceremony dedicated to the 14 Jewish chaplains who’d fallen during service to the United States.  Their names are engraved on a plaque that was on exhibit that day at the National Museum of American Jewish History and a week later was installed on Chaplains Hill at Arlington National Cemetery.  The moving moment for me was the sight of the aged veterans, in full military regalia, snap to attention and salute the flag while we recited the Pledge of Allegiance.  Being a child of the 60’s, I grew up in an era when we distrusted authority (and anyone over 30).  Saying the Pledge was perfunctory and maybe also ironic.  Singing the national anthem invariably induced some jokester to call out, “Play ball.”  But it was no joke for these veterans of America’s wars.  They remember their fallen comrades and why they were posted to foreign lands, regardless of whether it was the right strategic move.  The values they upheld were of civic and religious freedom (and the “pursuit of happiness” which our religious forefathers did not mean the right to shop until we drop).

More after the jump.

The 14 Jewish chaplains include:

  • World War II: Rabbi Alexander Goode; Rabbi Herman L. Rosen; Rabbi Henry Goody; Rabbi Samuel D. Hurwitz; Rabbi Louis Werfel; Rabbi Irving Tepper; Rabbi Nachman S. Arnoff; and Rabbi Frank Goldenberg;
  • Cold War Era: Rabbi Solomon Rosen; Rabbi Samuel Rosen;
  • Vietnam and Southeast Asia: Rabbi Meir Engel; Rabbi Joseph Hoenig; Rabbi Morton H. Singer; Rabbi David Sobel.

Recently, when I attended a private tour, “Journey on the Silk Road” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cynthia John, who’d created this tour, referred to the Holy Roman Empire (quoting Voltaire, says my young friend) as “not holy, not Roman, and not even an empire.”  Later, I asked John to elaborate but she only had time to say that the Mongols, who’d transformed far-flung agrarian societies into an urban one based on commerce, were an example of a real empire.  Nobody loves his emperor, but people have managed to forge strong allegiances to other entities, whether a religious icon, a culture, or a sports team.

My Rabbi has said that one can deduce much about other people’s values by their passions.  So, what do we know about people who wear apparel– even religious garb– emblazoned with an athletic team’s name? That they value sportsmanship or the thrill of victory (or maybe the agony of supporting the underdog team)?  Just how different are the various teams from each other?  A similar example of artificial distinction occurred during the recent political discussions about gerrymandering in my state, when I heard one woman express her wishes thus: we should just use rectangles in drawing our electoral districts, because then we would be sure that they are fair (or at least, not subject to political jockeying for power).  When I was first introduced to maps as a child, the states with the straight lines were the easiest to remember and to draw.  But, they do not connote any real distinction between the bordering states.  More socially relevant were the rivers and mountains which may have contributed to variations in dialect, climate, and terrain.  

At the museum ceremony, Rabbi Lance Sussman of Keneseth Israel Congregation spoke about the historical role of Jews in the American military, from Asher Levy petitioning to serve in the militia in New Amsterdam in 1657 (appeal initially denied, later granted) to the Jews who served in the American Revolution to a Jew being in the first graduating class at West Point (one of two graduates!).  In World War II, there were 500,000 Jews in the American Army, compared to a half million Jews who were conscripted in the Soviet Army.  One overlooked fact by revisionists who question the minor public role of American Jewry in the rescue of Jews from Nazi-controlled lands is that American Jews served at double the percentage of its share of the national population.  Their view was that the best way to help was to ensure victory for the Allieds, to defeat the Nazis.  These Jews served with bravery and distinction.  Of the 14 rabbis honored, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode was one of four chaplains (including Reverend George L. Fox, Reverend Clark V. Poling, and Father John P. Washington) who gave up their lifejackets when their ship, the USS Dorchester foundered and later sank in 1943.  They were honored as “the Four Immortal Chaplains” and were depicted on a U.S. postal stamp in 1943.

We do not have mandatory military service, so most Americans feel distant from our soldiers and other members of the armed forces.  A contrasting case in point was the Israeli public’s view of the release of Gilad Shalit, held captive as a political prisoner in Gaza for 5 1/2 years by Hamas militants.  Israelis overwhelmingly approved of the deal that exchanged one Israeli soldier for 1,027 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners.  With mandatory national service, every Israeli is but one degree of separation from an active Israeli soldier.  The negotiations for Shalit’s release were based on a tacit promise to all Israeli parents that their government would watch over their soldiers.  Their government would not forget them in captivity or in memorial.