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Taking stock on Veteran's Day

During World War II, more than a half-million Jews served in the American military.  The story of the Jewish American military experience begins there, but World War II also marks the beginning of a second story -- the story of Jewish women in the American military. In honor of Veteran's Day, I have been thinking about this story, its beginnings, and how far we have come since then.

As women gradually gained entry into the American military, Jewish women like Cindy Gats and Lisa Stein enlisted as soldiers, and as rabbinical positions opened up to Jewish women, rabbis like Bonnie Koppell served as chaplains. (On Tuesday, the very first lightweight chaplain's torah was revealed at the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly. That should make the job a little easier!) 

Today, there are few barriers left for women in the military. Women are technically still barred from direct combat, but thanks to "bureaucratic trickery" of higher-ups in the Army, female soldiers have been performing combat duties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and proving their mettle.

Not only that, the general American public is taking care to include and recognize women in the service. On the popular TV show Army Wives, there is now an "Army husband."  As more soldiers come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, women are increasingly recognized as veterans as well.  Change is beginning to happen at the Dept. of Veteran's Affairs to accomodate the health care needs of female veterans, which now make up about 8% of the veteran population. While certain barriers and problems undoubtedly still exist (sexual harrassment and rape, for example), great strides have been made by women in the military.

A couple weeks ago, we launched our Jewish Women in WWII collection on Flickr Commons.  Today I am thinking about the Jewish women serving our country now, but I am also looking back to where this story began -- with the women who served as nurses, members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, the Navy WAVES, and the Air Force. These trailblazing women of World War II are the first in what is now becoming a long tradition of courageous Jewish women veterans.

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You are absolutely correct to point out that Jews have served before World War II, and also to call attention to the Jewish women like Phoebe Yates Levy who served during the Civil War.

The point I was trying to make is that World War II was the first war in which there was a significant Jewish presence in the American military, as well as the first time a large enough number of Jewish women participated to constitute a significant presence. I did not mean to exclude veterans from earlier wars, but rather focus on World War II as a particularly important moment in Jewish American history.

Thank you for pointing out the service of Jewish veterans before World War II. They too deserve to be honored on Veteran's Day.

I was surprised to read, in a blog post talking about your own websites references to women in the military, as though Jewish participation in the US military started in WWII (a big surprise to Jews who served in the Revolutionary Army) or that even women's participation started during WWII. Laying aside pre-USA biblical references (Judith, slayer of Holofernes, as one prominent example; or that of Deborah the Judge), your website exhibit on "women in the military" includes a page on nurse Phoebe Yates Levy, who served during the Civil War (not the only "Jewish women and the civil war" reference in history, or even on your site).

I can see where you would focus on gathering the stories of the WWII generation now, before they are lost, but perhaps your last sentence on a US Veterans Day post could be simplified to read: "These trailblazing women are the first in what is now becoming a long tradition of courageous Jewish women veterans.".

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Taking stock on Veteran's Day." 11 November 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 18, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/veterans-day>.


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