West Point Jewish Cadets choir singing "Eli" by Hannah Szenec it's not a trivial sight at the Arlington military cemetery in Virginia. The occasion was indeed unique – the dedication of the first memorial to commemorate 14 Jewish chaplains who have died while serving in the U.S. military since WWII.
The site was unveiled on Monday on the Chaplains Hill at the military cemetery, along with three other older memorials - for clergy members killed in WWI, for 134 Protestant chaplains, as well as one for 83 Catholic chaplains.
The story of one of the 14 rabbis is well familiar to the older generation in the United States - 32-year old Rabbi Alexander Goode died on February 2, 1943, when a German torpedo attack sunk the USAT Dorchester that transported hundreds of American soldiers to the United Kingdom.
Rabbi Goode along with three other chaplains – Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist, Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed – distributed life jackets to the soldiers. When they ran out, they gave their own lifejackets to the soldiers, praying together, with some already wounded or dying from the blast, until the ship finally sank.
The chaplains' voices were "the only thing that kept me going," one survivor recalled.
They were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart, and a chapel in their honor was dedicated in 1951 by President Harry Truman at Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia. The Four Chaplains' Medal was established by act of Congress in 1960, and a commemorative stamp printed.
Another name on the memorial was of Rabbi Morton Singer, killed in a plane crash in Vietnam on his way to observe Hanukkah with Jewish soldiers. One of the Jewish veterans recalled his story during the ceremony at Arlington, an occasion attended by by Congressmen, Jewish community leaders, military officials and Jewish veterans from all over the United States.
"Faith is the most powerful weapon in our military's arsenal," Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Veterans Affairs Committee, said at the ceremony, adding that the Jewish chaplains story "was almost overlooked," and that the memorial was "the final stop in their long journey."
"It's important to include diversity in our country's history discussions", said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, adding she was "was personally thrilled" that Jewish spiritual heritage was honored, and that it was "important to pass their bravery "mi-dor le-dor [from generation to generation]", to know their participation and service.
"These men gave their lives truly serving as a hand of God," said David Engel, son of Rabbi Meir Engel, who died of a heart attack in 1964 while serving in Vietnam
A resolution by Congress was needed for a new memorial at the Arlington cemetery, and Jerry Silverman, President and the CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, praised the support of nearly 100 agencies that sent letters to American legislature.
The resolution passed unanimously both at the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Silverman pledged to continue embracing members of the military: "We will remember your sacrifice, and we'll be there for you when you come home," he said.
Air Force Chief of Chaplains Major General Cecil Richardson said he didn't know the 14 rabbis personally, but he knows what they had ahieved. "They sacrificed as soldiers and lived the life of warriors, serving all over the world, from Vietnam to Alaska," being there for the soldiers in most difficult moments, being there for their families when there is a death announcement team knocking on the door.
Jewish chaplains were allowed in the U.S. military following a petition to President Abraham Lincoln by the Jewish leaders in 1862. Congress then passed a law permitting chaplains of any faith - but in 2007, Kenneth Kraetzer, the former vice commander of the Sons of the American Legion Squadron 50 for New York state, discovered, while visiting the Chaplains Hill in Arlington, that they were not equally commemorated - Rabbi Goode's name was missing on the existing plaque, but three other chaplains from "Dorchester" were there.
The campaign to raise money for the memorial and rally congressional support to get an authorization for the new memorial lasted three years, with dozens of Jewish agencies involved, until the memorial was finally unveiled and dedicated, featuring the name of the 14 rabbis and a verse from Samuel: “They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions".
Before arriving at the Chaplains Hill, the plaque toured 10 states, being presented in various Jewish community centers and synagogues.
During the dedication ceremony, there were Jewish prayers and songs, and even a famous Israeli poem, "Camaraderie" ("Reut"), by the Israeli poet Chaim Guri, recited both in Hebrew and English.
Family members of the chaplains said the day was filled with both excitement and sadness for them - the memorial, they said, was long overdue - but there is a great sense of accomplishment.
“They are unrecognized heroes of both Jewish and American life, but today we begin the process of publicly acknowledging their contribution and their ultimate sacrifice,” Allan Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Community Centers Association, said.
"The monument only happened because countless people felt it had to", reminding the audience that 10000 Jews continue to serve today at the U.S. military.
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