Memorial Day: Serving Those Who Serve Us
by Kate Bigam
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.”
In Pirkei 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:
- Reaching Out to the Families of Jewish Military Personnel, a URJ resource, will assist you develop a supportive and caring community.
- The 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.
- 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.
For more information on how you can support our troops, visit www.rac.org/sos.
Kate Bigam is Press Secretary for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism