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A legacy of Jewish service: Remembering Pearl Harbor

This month’s Centennial Story focuses not on an individual, but on the fundamental work of the Jewish Welfare Board, the organization that was to eventually become JCC Association. That work continues today, and we take time to salute it as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. entry into World War II.

Today we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the “date that will live in infamy,” the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The attack began early on Sunday morning and when done, left 2,402 dead and 1,282 wounded; 188 US aircraft were destroyed, and 21 ships sunk. The Pearl Harbor attack shocked America, and propelled our entry into World War II.

As Jews, we tend to view World War II through the lens of the Shoah and the war in Europe. But for America, especially early in the war, the focus was the Pacific. Pearl Harbor, located more than 3,000 miles from San Diego, on the southern coast of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, was not someplace Americans routinely thought about. Hawaii wasn’t even a state at the time.

But it roared into our consciousness that morning.

The following day, many young American men from all walks of life, Jewish ones included, enlisted. Along with them, were the rabbis would serve them.
Endorsing who could be a rabbi to serve our troops was the role of the Jewish Welfare Board, or JWB. The organization came into being on the eve of World War I. Several Jewish agencies coalesced around the idea that if young Jewish men were going to serve this country, someone needed to look after their Jewish needs.

That was nearly 100 years ago. The organization proved effective in its advocacy and remained together following the Great War. Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, and with it young Jews, eager to serve a country that had been good to them.

This time JWB was in place to meet their spiritual needs and to advocate for them.

Just one year earlier, when Congress passed the Selective Service Act, 17 rabbis held commissions in the Army and two in the Navy. Eight were disqualified from active duty; the other 11 would server during the war. By the end of the war, when the first Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Morris Adler, entered Japan on Sept. 2, 1945 on the official day of surrender, it is estimated that half the eligible rabbis in the United States had asked to serve in the military chaplaincy. Of those who applied 311 received JWB endorsement —267 served in the Army, 43 in the Navy and one in the Maritime Service. Of these, 250 served overseas; 46 were decorated for bravery.

In all, more than 550,000 Jews served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. And we should note—in memory of all those proud moms and dads out there who insisted on their sons becoming Jewish doctors—that 60 percent of all Jewish physicians under age 45 wore a uniform. By the war’s end 1,000 American Jews who served were killed and 40,000 wounded. There were two recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, 157 received the Distinguished Service Medals and Crosses, which included Navy Crosses and 1,600 received the Silver Star.

There is a long line of Jewish military service and valor dating back to at least the time of the Maccabees. In this country, they have served in every war since the Revolutionary War that gave birth to our nation.

The work of JWB that began in World War I and that saw us through every conflict since continues today. JWB Jewish Chaplains Council proudly serves the Jews who serve their country—often in very lonely places, the only Jew stationed there. And yet, they continue to serve, as Jews and Americans, with valor and distinction.

Throughout the day, check the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council Facebook page to read stories from that harrowing day 75 years ago. You can also join in the commemoration at Pearl Harbor through the Livestream. If you have a Pearl Harbor story to share, submit it here or email mcohen@jcca.org.

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