As I reflect on this Veterans’ Day, first I thank all my fellow men and women who have served and are serving, standing tall in dangerous places to all Americans are able to find safety, and have the potential to flourish in peace, unlike so many across the globe.
So, do Jews serve in the American military? Often, we hear they don’t, or at least not all that many. They do. And in the various wars of the 20th century Jews voluntarily stepped forward in percentages larger than represented by their numbers in the general population. I am a product of the generation of Americans and American Jews who experienced the Vietnam War. A generation that often led the opposition to that conflict and taught their children to be extremely wary about entering such actions. Sometimes with blinders on and a too easy negative response to the potential need for going to war. Yet, this wariness is also important. Each time we see the potential for combat, for thinking we need to send our young men and women into the paths that lead to danger and death, I believe we have the moral responsibility to carefully reflect on whether going to war is the best or even better choice. There are those in our civilian leadership who never served, yet seem all too willing to send someone else’s children to solve an international issue militarily rather than diplomatically. We must always ask, as the Buddhist teaching goes “Are you sure?” There is a time for war and a time for peace- as Pete Seeger understood as he borrowed from King Solomon. The eternal challenge is to know what time it is.
The best way for me to answer my own question about Jews serving in the military is through my paternal Grandma Ella’s life. My grandmother was born at the end of the 19th century and arrived in the United States before 1910. When she died in 1995 she had experienced almost the entire 20th century. She started out riding horse-drawn carts in what is modern day Belarus to watching space flights at the end of her life. And every generation of her men served in the United States military. All came back alive, though for a couple of them, wounded in body and wounded in soul.
I am named after my father’s father. I never met him. While my grandmother lived to be 99 years old, he died very young at 48 years old. I was born 8 years later. He served in the War to End All Wars (would that it were so), the Great War- the end of witch we find the origins of our Veterans’ Day- WW1. We still have most parts of his uniform. Corporal Romer was wounded in France. I still don’t know what that wound was, but I remember by grandmother telling me she thought he lost a hand she received a picture of him with one arm behind his back. As it turned out, that was simply the style of the time. His hand was fine. Less than a quarter century later she said a loving and concerned good-bye to my father as he shipped out to Italy during WW2. How different a time and war this was- my dad told me how he memorized the eye chart to get in. He served in the 5th Army as a corporal in the infantry. And almost got sent on a secret mission behind enemy lines- until all remembered he memorized the eye chart and what a challenge it would be if he lost his glasses- while behind enemy lines. We still have his Ike jacket and some other paraphernalia of his years in service. I recall the first time I viewed his pictures of the Monte Cassino battle. The carnage and violence of war is plainly and starkly visible in these small black and white photos he took with a small camera. And after he died I found his journal he intermittently wrote in during his war years. One entry describes the time he looked forward to a date with a cute Italian girl. Leafing through his war photos, I found that girl! There smiling back at me is my father, all of 23 years old standing in front of a fountain in a small Italian village with that cute Italian girl on his arm!
Less than a decade after the end of WW2, my grandmother bid farewell to her youngest, my uncle, as he went off to Korea serving the Air Force. He returned with no injuries! After my older sister married I learned that her husband had served two tours in Vietnam, the second so that his younger brother would not have to go. While over in Vietnam, that brother committed suicide. Whatever demons he couldn’t wrestle with, left my brother-in-law with his own, as we discovered he never really worked through those issues (and how hard they would be for any of us). My brother-in-law came back to the states and left the Army as a Staff Sergeant. Lest we ever think someone is weak when they have difficulty wrestling with such challenges, this same man was willing to choose to become Jewish at the age of 27, go through a full circumcision to complete his conversion and stood tall when his family continued to pressure him and his wife and children about their remaining Jewish. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses, but in this lane, I saw only strength and fortitude.
I wonder what my High School and University friends and classmates must think when they discover I spent a total of 22 years in the military, 12 years on Active Duty. They will remember my active and passionate opposition to the Vietnam War, including student protests at the University of Michigan. After finishing Rabbinic School, I spent three years in Hollywood, Florida and then became the spiritual leader of the Reform congregation in West Lafayette, Indiana. During my tenure there I was invited to participate in a seminar on Hospice in Indianapolis. As it turned out, the Hospice Chaplain was also the senior chaplain for the Indiana Army National Guard and he did a bit of recruiting for a rabbi during our seminar. So I called him, we talked, and I ended up signing up. I never anticipated the journey I would take. I thought I would add some income and I could fulfill my patriotic side by serving in the National Guard. When I moved to another pulpit I continued in National Guard, now in New Jersey.
I was close friends with a rabbi who had gone straight into Active Army Chaplaincy. He had been encouraging me to come on board. When the time and opportunity arose, I did so. He had never deployed to a combat zone and his experiences were all positive. Of course during my first three year tour I ended up in two combat zones and two month-long training cycles at the National Training Center in the Upper Mojave Desert. Oh, well. On the other hand my next tour was four years in Germany, allowing our children to experience all of Western Europe at an old enough age to deeply appreciate all that gave to them. I continued serving on Active Duty for another 9 years and then completed my service in the South Carolina National Guard for another 6 years. My role as a Jewish chaplain was multi-layered- as I was the first rabbi on the ground in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm and the only on until late into Chanukah of that year. I was the Jewish chaplain for everyone until then. Marines, Air Force, Army, Seabees, even some Coast Guard Jewish personnel found their way to me for High Holy Days and Shabbat worship. And I was the chaplain (not specifically Jewish) for the over 1200 men and women in my unit. I arranged the Christmas program, arranged for Easter and got my Muslim soldiers to Mecca for the Hajj. That’s what military chaplains do. I arranged the full body baptisms for my soldiers before we entered Iraq. I didn’t perform the service, I assured my men and women were able to have the spiritual experience they desired.
My grandmother regularly bragged about my service and she was extremely proud of what I was doing. I can only imagine what her thoughts were when another generation of her men went off to war.
Finally, though my Grandmother was no longer alive, another generation of her men signed up. Our son received a ROTC scholarship and was on his way to entering the service when he discovered he had Crohn’s Disease. While the Army understands you will bleed if wounded, they won’t take you if you already have that potential due to a medical condition. Interestingly, my grandfather, my father, my son and I all spent time at Ft. Dix, NJ.
My Grandmother understood all too well the risks that come with living in the United States. She never looked back with any nostalgia to the land she left. She was firmly planted in all that America offered. She knew this was a land of freedom, but also knew that there were times when one had to defend this land. As each generation of her men put on a uniform and went off to war and potential death, she lifted them up with pride and was in turn lifted up by their service. She had to change her thoughts (and hopes) from the end of that War That Wasn’t The War to End All Wars (WW1) and realize that the freedoms preserved then would have to be protected again and again. She was not happy with that reality, as she spoke with me from time to time. But, she understood that the greater world was often dangerously unsafe for freedom and that someone would need to protect it. Again and again she sent her men off. Amazingly each one returned.
Veterans’ Day in America began in remembrance of the Armistice signed to end WWI on November 11th at 11:11 am, 1919. Now closing on a century since that time, we realize that war remains all too present and each generation has sent its men and women into combat. As we thank those who have served and serve, remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we remain free, let us seek the paths and ways that will bring an end to war; to the day we will only remember losing a loved one in war as a past heartbreak.