First-Hand Account of Jewish Chaplains Memorial Passage in U.S. House

In May, the U.S. Congress approved a resolution to place a memorial to Jewish military chaplains who had died while on active duty in Arlington National Cemetery. This resolution was the result of years of fundraising and advocacy by JWB Jewish Chaplains Council and other groups. Rabbi Harold Robinson was in the Capitol when the resolution passed the House of Representatives. He wrote this account for JCC Circle.

We’re Bringing Them Home

By Rabbi Harold Robinson, director, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council

After three years of planning, fundraising, and advocating, we were finally sitting in the gallery above the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, waiting for a vote on a resolution to place a memorial to fallen Jewish chaplains in Arlington National Cemetery. Although we had run into major obstacles along the way, we were finally to achieve our goal. The House of Representatives was about to pass the resolution, and then it would go to the Senate. Those 14 chaplains were almost home with their comrades in arms.

I was as excited as my fellow attendees—Ken Kraetzer, Sol Moglen, David Engle and his family, and Shelly Rood from JFNA. This project, which has consumed so much time and energy, began when Ken Kraetzer, a member of the Sons of the American Legion, called to ask why there was no memorial to Jewish chaplains on Chaplains Hill. Ken knew the story of the four chaplains who gave up their life vests on the USS Dorchester during World War II, and he knew that both Catholic and Protestant chaplains who had died while on active duty had memorials at Arlington.

I recognized the need for another memorial right away, and we began our efforts to make it happen. Sol Moglen of Caldwell, New Jersey, helped us raise the funds we needed, and Shelly Rood worked tirelessly in the last few months as a liaison with Congress. The son of one of the chaplains who died during the Vietnam conflict, David Engle brought his wife and sons to see the culmination of our work.

We had arrived prior to the debate to meet with Representative Jeff Miller, (R-FL), chair of the veterans’ affairs committee.  Although I spent plenty of time at the Capitol during my Navy career, it was truly a privilege to have a reception room to ourselves. To our surprise, Representative Miller and his staff thanked us for having given them an opportunity to do something like this before Memorial Day, and of course we thanked them for their support.

The thanks continued during the debate.  Republicans thanked Democrats, and Democratic representatives read our names and pointed out that we were in the gallery. Although that broke a House rule, it was a high honor to be referenced on the floor, an honor earned by the sacrifice of 14 colleagues. The bill passed on a voice vote, but then we were treated to an instance of the wonderful complexity of our system of government. The voice vote was retracted so the bill could pass later on a recorded vote. That allowed the representatives to come into the chamber and vote in person. Since the AIPAC conference was taking place that evening with Prime Minister Netanyahu scheduled to speak, representatives streamed in wearing evening clothes. The highlight of the evening may have been when we were escorted to the members-only exit. We shook hands with the representatives as they filed by, and many of them thanked us for the opportunity to pass such an important resolution. It was almost like being the father of the bride at a wedding!

When the resolution went to the Senate, we ran into another of those glitches so common to bureaucracy. Another item had been added to the resolution which would establish a presidential commission concerning all future memorials at Arlington. An anonymous senator’s hold put on this particular item brought everything to a screeching halt. Luckily, I was able to call a rabbi and a minister who called the right people on the committee to work out a satisfactory arrangement. From 11:30 that morning until 4:30 in the afternoon, when unanimous consent was finally given and the resolution passed, were among the most anxious moments of my life. Everyone was so eager to get it done before Memorial Day.

Our next step was to take the design to the U.S. Fine Arts Commission, a group of seven highly qualified presidential appointees who approve everything relating to art in the Federal Government and the D.C. district, including all coinage minted by the U.S. We listened as the commission discussed one side of a coin of Sacajawea. I was astonished at the spectrum of philosophic and aesthetic concerns they raised. When our turn came, we were asked about all aspects of the design, and we told the story of the four chaplains to explain why we were seeking to erect the memorial. We asked them to approve the design as well as the concept, and in unprecedented fashion, they did so in record time, asking for only one minor change.

Now, we’re eagerly looking forward to a dedication in October. That gives us time to bring the memorial plaque with its quotation from the Book of Samuel, “They were swifter than eagles, mightier than lions,” to JCCs and other community organizations. We hope that community groups will want to organize events around a viewing of the memorial. No better tribute could be made to the memory of these brave men.

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