Memorial Day Is a Jewish Holiday Too

In the 1890s, Mark Twain wrote an article about how Jews did not serve in the military of the United States. In response to that, 63 Jewish Veterans of the Civil War formed a group which is the longest-running veterans service organization in the nation, now known as Jewish War Veterans of the United States, or JWV. To his credit, Twain retracted his comments with an article called “The American Jew as Soldier." He apologized for what he had said and expressed support for this organization, which has tied together Judaism and American patriotism for over 100 years.

The National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C., established in 1955, details some of the many things Jews have done in service of this nation.  Jews have been tied to the United States since its founding, and many people know the story of Haym Solomon (1740-1785), without whom our founding fathers would have been lost. A New York businessman, he converted French loans into usable cash for the Continental Army. He is accepted by historians as, along with Robert Morris, one of the two prime financiers of the American side of the Revolution. He personally arranged for $650,000 for the Continental Army, and when George Washington found himself bankrupt immediately prior to the Battle of Yorktown, the deciding battle of the Revolution, Solomon came to the rescue.  Washington calculated that he needed $20,000 in order to fight this battle, and Morris told him there were no funds. Washington’s response to Morris was simple: “Send for Haym Solomon.” Solomon raised the $20,000 Washington needed, and the battle and Revolution were won (something that was left out of Broadway’s "Hamilton"). After personally loaning and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the start of this nation, he died penniless at the age of 44 in 1785. The many debts owed to him were paid off at ten cents on the dollar, and his family remained in poverty. But his legacy and gifts to this nation continue on.

Jews have distinguished themselves in the military from Solomon’s time to now, including Medal of Honor recipients going back to the Civil War and continuing through the present. From enlisted men to generals, flying aces to commodores, Jews have served the United States with their devotion and their lives. The great United States Special Forces, known as the Green Berets, were founded in 1952 by Aaron Bank, a Jewish colonel.  On the occasion of his hundredth birthday in 2002, George W. Bush commended him for developing the unconventional warfare programs and techniques that were used in toppling the Taliban.

Beyond fighting anti-Semitism, JFW has worked hard to create opportunities for Jews in the military.  They established a Jewish chaplaincy program, allowing rabbis to help people of any faith in need. They have fought for Jewish military abroad, sent care packages to Jewish servicemen for over a century, and led in combating every form of discrimination that has ever been found in our armed forces. In 2002, they helped 24 Jewish veterans receive the Medal of Honor who had previously been denied because of anti-Semitism through the passage of the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act.  On Jewish holidays you can see members of this group at every veterans hospital passing out Jewish care packages.

From colonial times to now, Jewish military personnel have served in all branches of the Armed Forces and in every major armed conflict in which the United States has been involved.  The Talmud teaches that the entire world rests on the word of God, service, and acts of kindness (Torah, Avodah, v’Gimilut Hasadim), and serving in the United States military is one of the great expressions of that service.  Especially on this Memorial Day, we need to remember that there is a long and deep history of Jewish service to this nation, and always remember (and teach our children) to say “thank you” to every veteran or active military personnel that we are ever blessed to encounter.

May the time not be distant when there will no longer be a need for any human being to participate in any act of war, but rather a time of peace. For us and for our children. May the One who ordains peace in the heavens, make peace on us and on all the world, and may we always say, Amen.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha and the author of “Sacred Relationships:  Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together.” He can be reached directly at [email protected]