Honoring our Jewish service members on Memorial Day
Time for a quick Jewish-American history lesson: In 1655, New Amsterdam colonist Asser Levy rallied against a colonial ordinance that forbade Jews from joining the colonial militia. After heated and impassioned protest from Levy and other Jewish colonists, the ordinance was eventually repealed, allowing Jews to serve. Levy, a proud veteran and prominent businessman, went on to become an advocate for religious equality and a defender of Jewish rights in the colony.
More than 350 years later, Jews continue to serve in the military in times of war and peace, risking – and sacrificing – their lives to protect their fellow countrymen. According to Department of Defense statistics, approximately 4,600 service members identify as Jewish, though an October 2009 story in The Forward surmised that the number likely underreports thousands of Jewish personnel, for various reasons. Admiral Harold Robinson, a Reform rabbi and director of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council, estimates that 10,000 to 14,000 Jews currently serve in the United States military. Jewish members of the United States Armed Forces fought in the Civil War, both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf War, and they continue to serve today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of course, many of these Jewish service members are women. Notable among them is Col. Rabbi Bonnie Koppel, the first female rabbi to serve in the U.S. military. After serving in both Desert Storm and Iraq, Col. Rabbi Koppel received multiple military awards for her service. Another notable Jewish servicemember is Rabbi Chana Timoner, who in 1992 was was appointed the U.S. military’s first full-time active duty female chaplain and the only Jewish chaplain station at Fort Bragg, N.C. Days after President Clinton enacted the controversial (and about-to-become-obsolete) “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning gay and lesbian service members from disclosing their sexuality, Rabbi Timoner announced that she would happily provide comprehensive and confidential counseling for gay soldiers.
In Pirkei Avot 2:4, Rabbi Hillel taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community”). As Jews, it is our responsibility – perhaps even our civic duty – to take proactive steps to ensure than the men and women who serve are country are being served by our communities.
Here are just a few ways you can help:
- The National Museum of Jewish American Military History pays tribute to those among us who have served. Take a virtual tour and learn how you can support their work.
- The Brave, a listserv for families of Jewish active military personnel, provides a place for family members to feel connected to others who understand their unique challenges.
- JWB Jewish Chaplains Council collects donations for holiday packages and materials to be distributed to Jewish military personnel and collects names of Jewish soldiers to be package recipients.
- Adopt-A-US-Soldier is one of many projects that allow individuals and groups to “adopt” soldiers for short or long-term periods by sending care packages.
Have you thanked a service member lately? Are you a service member yourself? Tell us your story or let us know how you lend your support to members of the military, both Jewish and otherwise!
This post was excerpted, part, from the author’s 2009 piece, “Serving Those Who Serve Us,” written for the Union for Reform Judaism. The content is used with permission.