by Dr. Gerhard Falk
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications,
A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002),
Ascent to Reason (2003).