Memorial Day: Serving Those Who Serve Us
Time for a quick history lesson: In 1655, the colony of
New Amsterdam passed an ordinance forbidding Jewish residents to enlist
in the colony’s militia, ruling that Jews were instead required to
pay a monthly contribution for this exemption from service. Insistent
upon military service, Jewish colonist Asser Levy refused to pay and
instead rallied others in petitioning for the right to enlist. Their
petition, though initially rejected, was ultimately successful, and Levy
and other Jewish residents were eventually permitted to serve alongside
their fellow colonists. 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 worldwide continue to
serve in the military in times of war and peace, risking – and
sacrificing – their lives to protect their fellow countrymen.
Thousands of Jews have been awarded medals for their wartime service;
still thousands more have died in combat or been wounded. 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. They
continue to serve today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to Department of Defense statistics,
approximately 4,600 service members currently 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.
Yet too often, Jewish military personnel and their
families are invisible to our congregations, left without the vital
support needed to make it through trying times. With this in mind, in
2005 the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution pledging its
support for Jewish military chaplains, personnel, and their families. In
it, the Reform Movement urged clergy to enter into military chaplaincy
and urged congregations to provide services (including Shabbat prayer and
Torah study) on bases, ships and in military hospitals. It also implored
congregations to reach out to Jewish service members and their families
and fully welcome them into congregational life. Reform congregations,
clergy and individuals have answered this call by creating congregational
support networks for Jewish patients in military hospitals and for
parents whose children are in the military, and by sending care packages
and correspondence to military personnel serving overseas.
But it’s not just about Jewish military
personnel; more than 1.47 million men and women are currently on active
military duty, and another 1.46 million are on reserve. In 2007, the URJ
resolved to commend these men and women “who have answered
duty’s call and served our nation honorably, often with valor and
distinction, and who have earned our respect and gratitude and that of
the American people” and to support benefits for them, both abroad
and at home, “thus honoring those who serve our nation and
fulfilling our commitments to them.”
Avot 2:4, Rabbi Hillel taught, “Do not separate
yourself from the community”). As Reform 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:
Out to the Families of Jewish Military Personnel, a URJ
resource, will assist you develop a supportive and caring community.
TBI Treatment Act would help treat wounded soldiers returning
from war with Traumatic Brain Injuries sustained in combat. With
just one click, you can ask your Members of Congress to support this
vital bill to rehabilitate injured servicemen and women.
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.
For more information on how you
can support our troops, visit www.rac.org/sos.