By Rabbi Joseph S. Topek
As the 1940’s dawned and world war loomed in the near future, the Hillel Movement was undergoing a rapid expansion. From the first Hillel at the University of Illinois in 1923, nearly 50 campuses were being served by full time Hillel Foundations or part time Hillel Counselorships by 1941. Many of the Hillels were located at large state universities in the midwest and south, and virtually all were directed by rabbis. These rabbis represented all of the major denominational groups in the Jewish community and even then Hillel maintained a pluralistic approach to serving Jewish students.
A call for service
Chaplain David Max Eichhorn, Camp Croft, South Caroline, 1942 (from Greg Palmer and Mark S. Zaid, editors. The GIs Rabbi: World War II Letters of David Max Eichhorn. Lawrence, KS, University Press of Kansas, 2004).
As the need to fill the ranks of the military grew, millions of young American men, and some women, volunteered, particularly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. College campuses became training centers for military recruits and young American Jews were joining in great numbers. In all, 550,000 American Jews served in the armed forces during World War Two, and many of them were young men of college age. Some left school to serve, others postponed college, and some were already college graduates. As their ranks grew it became apparent that rabbis were needed to serve as chaplains to the thousands of Jewish soldiers and sailors.
The first Jewish chaplains had been commissioned during the Civil War, and some 26 had served during World War One, including Rabbi Lee Levinger who was the founding Hillel Director at Ohio State University in 1925. In 1917 the Jewish Welfare Board was organized to provide for the religious needs of Jewish servicemen and was recognized by the Army and Navy Departments as the official vetting organization for Jewish chaplains. Now the JWB needed rabbis to fill the ranks of the Jewish chaplaincy and turned to the seminaries as well as the active rabbinate. By the end of World War Two, 311 rabbis had been commissioned to serve in the Army, Navy, and Merchant Marines (the Air Force was then part of the Army and the Marines were served by the Navy).
Hillel rabbis made good recruits for the JWB and would be excellent potential military chaplains. They were already accustomed to working in a pluralistic setting, and a military chaplain had to serve the religious needs of all Jewish personnel regardless of affiliation. Hillel rabbis were also used to working in an interfaith environment, and military chaplains were trained to serve the needs of all soldiers in the unit to which they were attached, regardless of religious faith. Hillel rabbis were also used to relating to a large institution, the university, and would likely find the military not so unfamiliar. Most of all, they had experience working with the age group that most military personnel belonged to, and in fact had been seeing their own students off to war since the mobilization began.
The American rabbinate responded to the JWB with rabbis from all of the movements in Jewish life. It was a strain on the community to give up the services of these rabbis from their pulpits and other positions, and often those places were left unfilled for the duration of the war. In some Hillels the rabbi who replaced the director who was on military service was himself mobilized into service as well. Some 20 then-current or former Hillel directors and counselors served as military chaplains between 1941 and 1945. At least three other chaplains would serve as Hillel directors after the war. Several served with distinction in combat zones, with four being awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service against hostile forces.
A difficult task
Serving as a chaplain was often a strain on the rabbi and on his family as well. Rabbi David Max Eichhorn, who directed the Hillel at Florida State, left behind a wife and four young children. He wrote to his family from Europe in August 1944, “I am well and doing whatever it lies in my power to do. I am happy to know that my children are proud of their daddy and I hope that I shall never do anything to make them ashamed. I want them to know and to feel that I am doing as much as my limited abilities allow to be a good soldier and a good rabbi.1”
Chaplains stationed close to the front lines also had to worry about their personal safety. Rabbi Morris Kertzer, who directed the Hillel at the University of Iowa, wrote in his post-war memoir about an experience in Anzio, Italy, “One night I was awakened well after midnight by a sergeant from the message center, summoning me to an emergency call at the evacuation hospital. My trip along the shore road to the evacuation hospital that night marked my first brush with death. A jeep traveling in the dark about 150 yards ahead of me went off the road and touched off a triple Teller mine. There was a deafening blast. A shower of dust and rubbish – all that remained of the car and driver – descended on me!2”
When the war ended all of these chaplains returned to civilian life. Most did not resume a career with Hillel, but chose the congregational rabbinate. Their military service involved serving the needs of Jewish GI’s often under very difficult circumstances of material deprivation and hostile fire. They often saw the soldiers they served injured or killed and one of their duties involved writing letters to loved ones who had endured such a loss. Some rabbis who served in Europe also worked with Holocaust survivors and witnessed firsthand the horrors of concentration and death camps after their liberation. Rabbi Morris Kertzer published his memoir of wartime experiences in 1947 entitled With an H on My Dog Tag (Jewish soldiers were identified with the letter “H” for Hebrew). Rabbi David Max Eichhorn’s letters were published in 2004 in a volume entitled The GI’s Rabbi: World War II Letters of David Max Eichhorn. Rabbi Eichhorn reveals the frustrations, as well as the many fulfilling moments, of serving stateside, deploying to Europe, and serving in the European Theater itself. In many ways these Hillel directors were heroes. They were able to take their experiences working with young Jews and bring them into a setting that was unpredictable and often dangerous. At times of great duress they were able to bring faith and comfort to men and women who were putting their lives at risk to fight tyranny and oppression. They represented the best traditions of the Hillel Movement in reflecting the values of being distinctively Jewish and universally human.
From “Anzio Anxiety” (Morris Kertzer, With an H on my Dog Tag)
“My work at Anzio centered on three areas of the beachhead: the pine woods, the hospitals, and the cemetery. The rest area was a euphemistic phrase for a pine forest where men of the Third and Forty-fifth Divisions retired for intensive training. Although, through the voice of Axis Sally, the Nazis announced on the radio that they knew we were there (they practically referred to us by name and serial number), for some reason few bombs or shells interrupted our activities. It was here that I held a Passover Seder service in April of 1944. We were in a big tent in the pine woods near the Mussolini Canal at Anzio. Our artillery was shelling the enemy, only a thousand yards away. Because of the protection afforded by the thick pine forests, the Nazis did not know we had gathered five hundred men and one nurse in the area. It was not a bright Passover. We had two candles, and I could not see most of the men seated on the sand before me. Our feast was meager, a piece of matzah for each man, a drop of wine (flown in by the Air Transport Command from Algiers) and some fruit salad. There was nothing else. We even omitted the bitter herbs. The moror, we said, was provided by the situation. Our spirits were light, though, and we remarked that it would be wise to eat our matzah as quietly as possible, for the sound of many men crunching might well be heard by the enemy.”
From a letter to his family dated July 16, 1945 (The GI’s Rabbi: World War II Letters of David Max Eichhorn)
“Had a pleasant surprise two days ago. The provost marshal of Nuremburg, an MP captain, walked in on me and he was none other than my old Florida student, Murray (Micky) Weintraub, of Miami, a very fine boy whom you may remember and who mentioned to me over and over again that he wants to be remembered to you, Zelda, and all the kids. He married Gladys Wolf of FSCW [Florida State College for Women] a couple years ago and they have a little girl whom Micky has never seen. He brought me some bad news about our Florida boys which dampened the pleasure of seeing him: Nathan Aronowitz of Miami, my brilliant Nate, a sweet lovable boy, killed in Luxembourg; Louis Dwoskin, another fine member of our Hillel Council from Jax [Jacksonville], killed leading his company in Brittany; Bob Richter of Miami, little Alfy Cohen of Miami, another brilliant boy who was editor of the university newspaper and in the Army was a correspondent for the Stars and Stripes, Si Rothstein, Phi Beta Kappa and future sociologist of Jax, and many others whom I remembered more dimly, all dead. These sad tidings must be expected but when they come they can not be taken easily.”
The following Hillel rabbis served as active duty chaplains in the Armed Forces during World War Two:
Hillel Foundation Directors:
Rabbi Solomon Cherniak (Navy, Lt. s.g.), University of Georgia
Rabbi David Eichhorn (Army, Capt.), Florida State – Bronze Star
Rabbi Harry Essrig (Army, Major), University of Chicago
Rabbi Morris Kertzer (Army, Capt.), University of Iowa – Bronze Star
Rabbi Bertram Klausner (Army, Major), University of Alabama
Rabbi Ernst Lorge (Army, Capt.), Florida State – Bronze Star
Rabbi Marvin Reznikoff (Army, Capt.), Brooklyn College
Rabbi Selwyn Ruslander (Navy, Lt. s.g.), University of Illinois
Rabbi Samuel Sandmel (Navy, Lt. s.g.), University of North Carolina & Duke University
Rabbi Samuel Silver (Army, Capt.), University of Maryland
Rabbi Albert Yanow (Navy, Lt. j.g.), University of Maryland
Rabbi Sidney Ballon (Army, Capt.), University of South Carolina
Rabbi Harry Jolt (Army, Capt.), University of Nebraska – Bronze Star
Rabbi Robert I. Kahn (Army, Capt.), Rice Institute
Former Hillel Directors and Counselors:
Rabbi Samuel Cook (Army, Lt.), University of Alabama
Rabbi Albert Lewis (Army, Capt.), University of Virginia
Rabbi Selig Miller (Navy, Lt. s.g.), University of West Virginia
Rabbi Martin Perley (Army, Capt.), University of Indiana
Rabbi Ely Pilchik (Navy, Lt. j.g), University of Maryland
Rabbi Martin Weitz (Army, Capt.), Northwestern University
Chaplains who later served as Hillel Directors:
Rabbi Milton Elefant (Army, Lt.), Syracuse University
Rabbi Saul Kraft (Army, Capt.), Queens College
Rabbi Leo Lichtenberg (Army, Capt.), University of Virginia and Adelphi University
Rabbi Joseph Topek is Director of the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life at Stony Brook University and is the author of several articles on American Jewish military history.
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Bernstein, Philip S. Rabbis at War: The CANRA Story. Waltham, MA, American Jewish Historical Society, 1971.
Kertzer, Morris N. With an H on my Dog Tag. New York, Behrman House, 1947.
Palmer, Greg and Mark S. Zaid, editors. The GI’s Rabbi: World War II Letters of David Max Eichhorn. Lawrence, KS, University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Schneiderman, Harry and Julius R. Maller. The American Jewish Yearbook 5706, 1945-46. Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1945.
Slomovitz, Albert I. The Fighting Rabbis. New York, New York University Press, 1999.
1. Greg Palmer and Mark S. Zaid, editors. The GI’s Rabbi: World War II Letters of David Max Eichhorn. (Lawrence, KS, University Press of Kansas, 2004) page 79.
2. Morris N. Kertzer. With an H on my Dog Tag. (New York, Behrman House, 1947) pages 6-7.