I’m sitting at my computer following our local Independence Day parade, where veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam all received well-deserved recognition and applause from the onlookers, myself included. On a day when we stop to appreciate the gift of freedom that we enjoy, it is important to acknowledge those who sacrificed to help defend that most precious gift. In these conflicts, and particularly in World War II, Jewish armed service personnel played an important role and their contributions not only supported our country but also solidified Jews’ places in the American imagination as full citizens and conferred an extra measure of legitimacy, even though Jewish soldiers have served America valiantly back to the days of the Revolutionary War. One of my fondest memories of a pulpit that I served as a student rabbi is the annual Jewish War Veterans commemoration the week before Memorial Day, where I lead prayers at the graves of veterans. Many Jews from this working-class community had served and they gathered to remember their departed not only as family and friends but also as soldiers.
Today the number of Jews serving in the armed forces is down significantly. The armed forces’ composition changed drastically when they abandoned the draft in favor of an all-volunteer force, but that legacy of service is still strong. Rabbi Bonnie Kappell, a U.S. army chaplain who volunteered to serve in Iraq in 2005 has reflected on her experiences and the challenges she has faced as a reservist since 1978, now with the rank of colonel. It is clear that the Jewish ethos of service and self-sacrifice lives on.