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February 3, 2015 12:08 pm

Remembering Jewish Chaplains on Four Chaplains Day

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avatar by Kalman Sporn

Rabbi Goode. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The Algemeiner Journal will celebrate its 2nd Annual ‘Jewish 100’ Gala on February 3rd. This also coincides with the 72nd Commemoration of the “Immortal Chaplains.”

Last May at the Republican Leadership Conference in Louisiana, Senator Ted Cruz opened the prayer breakfast with the story of the sinking of the USAT Dorchester. In the early morning hours of February 3, 1944, a German U Boat torpedoed the ship; plunging the nearly 900 sleeping soldiers below deck in darkness.

Four Chaplains – Rabbi Alexander Goode, Roman Catholic Priest John Washington, and two Protestant Ministers George Fox and Clark Poling – helped get men on the deck into lifeboats. When the supply of life vests ran out, they handed their own to fellow crew members. As the boat sank the chaplains linked arms, chanting Psalms in Latin, Hebrew, and English – then comforted those in the water. Within 20 minutes, the Four Chaplains disappeared below the waves having helped more than 230 fellow personnel survive.

A stamp issued in 1948 didn’t mention their names, just “These Immortal Chaplains…Interfaith in Action.” On February 3, 1951, President Harry Truman dedicated the Chapel of the Four Chaplains at Temple University declaring “This interfaith shrine will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers, so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.” In 1988, Congress passed legislation marking February 3rd as “Four Chaplains Day.” Their heroism underscores the vital role that chaplains continue to play advising, consoling, and inspiring their fellow soldiers through faith. Senator Cruz reminded us of the axiom, “there are no atheists in fox holes.” As prayers were said for our men and women in uniform that morning at the Republican Leadership Conference, I began to think more deeply about the role of faith in warfare. It is appropriate on Four Chaplains Day to pay tribute to Jewish chaplains throughout modern history.

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During the First Gulf War – Operation Desert Storm, Orthodox Rabbi Major Jacob Goldstein of the New York National Guard was sent to Israel as Chaplain to Dutch and American units operating the Patriot anti-missile batteries against Iraqi scuds. Both the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Mordecahi Eliyahu blessed the troops. Of the 39 rockets that had been launched against Israel, there were only two fatalities. Rabbi Goldstein, or “Rav HaPatriot” as he was known, then led the mostly non-Jewish soldiers to the Western Wall for prayers. A decade later; he was minutes from the World Trade Center as the planes hit; he stayed for five months as Chief Chaplain at Ground Zero running services for people of all faiths.

In the battle for Jerusalem during the 1948 Arab-Israel War, Jerusalem Commander David Shaltiel asked Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Chief Chaplain for the newly formed Israel Defense Forces, to find manpower to dig trenches in advance of Jordanian tanks. According to his newly released autobiography; Rabbi Goren walked directly into the Neturai Kartai yeshiva study halls and appealed directly to the bochurim (students) who were learning. Hundreds volunteered. Haredi men and boys help helped dig the trenches that Shabbos. It is clear without their involvement, all of Jerusalem would have been lost.

Michael Allen was the first Jewish Chaplain in the United States during the Civil War – serving the 65 Regiment of the 5th Philadelphia Cavalry. He was elected and adored by both his Christian and Jewish soldiers. In his diary from 1861, he recollects not feeling well on a particular Sunday because it was also the Fast of Gedaliah – but he managed to a run a service at 8 AM that morning with Scriptural reading, hymns, and a sermon for his Christian soldiers.

Across the Atlantic in 1849, Ignac Einhorn a former Yeshiva student of Nitra was appointed the very first Modern European Jewish Chaplain serving under General György Klapka at the Komárom fortress until its surrender. Eventually he became Secretary of Agriculture, the highest-ranking Jew in the Hungarian civil service for half a century.

During World War I, more than 300,000 Jews fought for their beloved Emperor Franz Josef, among them my Great Grandfather Antal Iczkovics from Kisvarda. According to Hungarian historian Akos Biro, a total of 96 Field Rabbis served the Austro-Hungarian Armed Forces during the Great War. The 11th Honved Infantry Regiment from Munkacs even pressed a shohet (butcher) into service. Dr. Lemberger, a civilian rabbi in Pozsony- Szentgyörgy, became one of the most decorated field rabbis of the Royal Hungarian Honvédség serving in some of the bloodiest battles of Galicia.

Just a few months after the sinking of the USAT Dorchester – in October 1944, not far from the front line, NBC broadcast the service of American Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Sidney Lefkowitz, which was heralded as the first Jewish service in Germany since Hitler. On the ruins of the Aachen synagogue, soldiers from the American First Infantry sang Ain Kelokanu and Yigdal. Rabbi Lefkowitz wrote about three Polish Jewish boys he discovered in the Nordhausen hospital: “The Chaplain’s insignia with its Tablets of the Law and Mogen David attracted their attention. Bewildered, they asked if I wore the Star of David because of desire or through compulsion, whether it was a sign of disgrace or pride. A bit incredulous they were when I described our position in the army and America.”

In the late 1990s, David Fox-Brenton, the nephew of Chaplain George Fox and Rosalie Goode Fried, daughter of Chaplain Alexander Goode, set up the Immortal Chaplains Foundation to award those who help others at their own risk. Recipients have included Charles David, an African American Coast Guardsman from the Comanche who died of pneumonia after repeatedly jumping into the freezing waters to rescue Dorchester survivors; Omri Abdel Al-Jada, a young Palestinian man who died while saving a Jewish child from drowning in Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee); and the villagers of Le Chambon, France, who saved 5,000 Jews from the Nazis. Rosalie Goode Fried passed away in 1999. David Fox-Brenton passed away in 2013.

Preserving the legacy of the Immortal Chaplains is now incumbent upon us. This February 3rd on Four Chaplains Day, take a moment to honor their memory and to say thank you to our rabbis in uniform.

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