Jewish Military Chaplains

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Jewish Chaplain

The word chapel is derived from the Latin word capella, meaning a place of worship other than a church. Such medieval places often held the cape of a saint in one of our sister religions.

During the past 150 years the word chaplain has become attached to those who serve in the military. This includes rabbis as well as chaplains of all denominations, including Moslems.

It was not always so. Although some 6,500 Jews had enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War, begun in 1861, there were no rabbis in the army. When several rabbis asked to enlist they were refused on the grounds that only Christians could serve as clergy or chaplains. The army took the attitude that Christianity is the official religion of the United States. This led Representative Clement L. Vallandigham (not a Jew) of Ohio to protest this attitude to President Abraham Lincoln on the grounds that the exclusion of rabbis from the chaplaincy was “blantantly unconstitutional.”

This matter came to the attention of President Lincoln because the Pennsylvania based “Cameron’s Dragoons” had elected Rabbi Arnold Fischel from New York as their chaplain. However, the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, for whom the regiment was named, rejected the application for Fischel to have chaplain status because he was not a Christian. The YMCA and other Christian organizations lobbied Congress to uphold the exclusion of rabbis from the armed services.

Thereupon Rabbi Fischel traveled to Washington and met with Lincoln at the White House. Lincoln then asked Congress to allow the entrance of rabbis into the army. The bill passed on July 17, 1862. This led to the appointment by Lincoln of three rabbis, Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia, Berhard Gotthelf of Louisville and Ferdinand Sarner of Rochester, to be army chaplains.

There were only 25,000 Jews in the Confederate States during the Civil War as compared to 120,000 in the north. About 2,000 Jews fought in the southern army. They had no Jewish chaplains. However, the Confederate Secretary of State was Judah Benjamin, the army quartermaster was Abraham Myers and the surgeon general of the Confederacy was David de Leon.

Anti-Jewish conduct was almost unknown in the South in the 19th century. Unlike the North, the South was friendly to Jews because then as now the fundamentalist form of Christianity considered Jews “the chosen people” (As Holocaust survivors like to say-“Please God, choose somebody else”).

Since then rabbis have served in all our wars. That included Rabbi Isaac Klein of blessed memory. Rabbi Klein published a book about his experiences as chaplain in Europe during World War II. The book is called The Anguish and the Ecstasy of a Jewish Chaplain. This is a dramatic account of the liberation of the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust as Rabbi Klein experienced it directly on the arrival of American troops to whom he was attached. It is an account of day one of liberation from Nazi rule.

The most dramatic story to come out of World War II concerning a Jewish chaplain is the fate of Rabbi Alexander Goode. Rabbi Goode was the son of a Washington, D.C. rabbi. An athlete of unusual ability, he won medals in track, tennis and swimming. He joined the National Guard while still in Yeshiva and thereafter earned a doctorate in Oriental languages. He was married and had one child when he joined the Chaplains Corps and was assigned to the S.S. Dorchester in February 1943. The S.S. Dorchester was an old liner now used as a troop transport. Rabbi Goode had studied at the Harvard divinity school where he met and became friends with Father John Washington and the Rev. George Fox and the Rev. Clark Poling. These four friends went on the Dorchester together as chaplains to the over 900 men crowded into the ship for Greenland. Shortly before arriving there the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. In the confusion arising from the explosions on the ship, many sailors lost their life jackets while others were unable to find the life boats and yet others could not get out of the lower decks fast enough. The four chaplains, including Rabbi Goode, directed the men to the lifeboats calmly and with great courage and then gave their four life jackets to four men who had none. Joining arms at the rail of the sinking ship they prayed together and died heroically so that others could live. Only 230 of the 920 men on the Dorchester survived.

On May 28, 1948 the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp depicting the four chaplains at the rail of the Dorchester. On July 14, 1960 the Congress of the U.S. authorized the Four Chaplains medal, showing the Star of David, the Tablets of Moses and the Christian Cross.

In 1951 President Harry Truman dedicated the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in Philadelphia. Since then the chapel has been moved to Valley Forge. There are three “altars” in the chapel, one for each of the religions represented by these heroic men. There is also an eternal light indicating that the four chaplains all had one Father.

For those who are interested in this story and other aspects of the Jewish chaplaincy there is also a book called The Fighting Rabbis: Jewish Military Chaplains and American History, by Albert I. Slomovitz.  The author is himself a chaplain holding the rank of colonel.

Today, the Jewish clergy are fully accepted in all U.S. armed services. This includes Rear Admiral Harold Robinson, who rose from the rank of Ensign to become commanding officer of several chaplains services, including Regimental Chaplain of the 25th Marine Regiment. In 2003 he achieved Flag rank, meaning he became an admiral.

The recent conflict in Iraq depicted several rabbis serving as chaplains to the Jewish women and men in that invasion. This was surely a very important event in the lives of Jewish service people and the rabbis in particular since Iraq is the land where Judaism began. Our father Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees, i.e. from Chaldea, a name some Christians use to this day to designate their Iraqi origin.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2003).

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