A meditation on Memorial Day.
This Monday is Memorial Day.
For most of us that means no work — a holiday that is more about family barbecues and shopping sales than remembering those who gave their lives to protect our freedom.
That’s especially true for a Jewish community that knows few who serve in today’s all-volunteer military. Can you name even two people in active service? How about one?
David Everett can.
Just over a year ago, on May 20, 2009, a roadside bomb near Kabul, Afghanistan, took the lives of Army Reserve Lt. Col. Shawn Pine, 51, of San Antonio, and Air Force First Lt. Roslyn (Roz) Schulte, 25, of St. Louis. Both were Jewish.
Everett, 57, an attorney from Westchester and U.S. Reserve Officer who served for five months in Afghanistan last year as a senior military adviser to the police chief of Kabul, was one of several hundred to attend an emotional memorial service for Pine and Schulte at Camp Eggers in Kabul.
Fortunately, he said, a Jewish chaplain based in Kuwait happened to be in the area and was able to officiate.
Everett knew Schulte. “We’d had a couple of nice conversations. She was a wonderful human being. She could have been my daughter,” he said. “How devastating to lose a child like that.”
But such tragedies, he acknowledges, “are just not on the radar for most people.”
Everett, who has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf, says that when he tells people in the Jewish community of his three decades of military service, they tend to express surprise and curiosity.
“Some of it is supportive, but there’s a lot of ambivalence,” he says, with the clear implication that most Jews see the military life as not for those with the educational and economic means to avoid it.
Everett is the first to say that the military is not for everyone. “It’s very regimented, you have to take orders and you are in harm’s way. But for me,” he asserts, “it was a great experience and helped me mature as a young man. It taught me to get along with very different kinds of people, and it taught me leadership skills.
“Most of all,” he said, “it gave me the opportunity to serve my country, which has done so much for me and my family.”
While he believes his three teenage children should make their own career choices, Everett says he was “greatly influenced” as a youngster by the knowledge that his Uncle Freddy, his mother Edith’s brother, was killed in action over Germany in World War II. His father and other uncles also served, which was not uncommon at the time.
In fact, at the end of that war, an estimated one in 10 Americans was in the service. Today, even with the U.S. fighting wars on two fronts, only one in 221 Americans is on active duty, according to reports.
‘Not In Vogue
About 1 percent of the U.S. military is Jewish, says Rabbi Harold Robinson, director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council in New York. That means there are approximately 1,500 Jews serving in Iraq and 750 in Afghanistan. Since they are spread out over such large areas, there is little concentration of Jews, though they come together in small groups for seders, High Holy Day services and Shabbat services and meals, when possible.
David Everett would like to see greater enlistment among Jews. “It’s important to be on the front lines for democracy,” he asserts, though he notes that it’s “not in vogue to enlist.”
One young woman who did sign up, initially against her family’s wishes, is Stephanie Koerner, 26, who joined the ROTC program at Syracuse University as a freshman and “never stopped going.”
It was 2002, and “we knew we were going to war,” she said during a recent interview. “That scared me, but it was something I wanted to do.”
She served more than four-and-a-half years overseas, including two deployments in Iraq, one for nine months and then again for 10 months, in the transportation corps.
Like Everett, she said she experienced no anti-Semitism in the service, but was asked a lot of questions about her faith, some from peers who had never met a Jew before. And while she never hid her Judaism, she never broadcasted it, either.
“I was cautious how I acted,” she said.
Koerner’s choice of an army career had a profound influence on her rabbi, Gerald Skolnik, of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, who has known her family since she was born.
A self-described “child of the ‘60s,” Rabbi Skolnik says that he not only opposed the Vietnam War as a college student and took part in protest rallies, but he, like many of his generation, vented his anger at American soldiers as well.
On the occasion of Koerner going off to Iraq, the rabbi offered what he calls “a public apologia on my part” in the form of a sermon in which he said that his generation’s “great sin was not separating between the war and the soldier. They weren’t the villains, but we victimized them. They got drafted while a lot of us learned Talmud to stay out [in religious school deferments].
“I look back now and it was wrong.”
In addition to the sermon, Rabbi Skolnik composed a prayer for America’s military personnel, which he still recites every Shabbat at services. It invokes God’s blessings on “those brave men and women whose courage and commitment to that for which this country stands, protects us all.”
Koerner says the support of the rabbi and congregation, including almost daily food packages and notes from members, sustained her when she was far from home.
“The synagogue adopted me,” she recalls. “They were amazing. And I think for many of them I was their first personal connection to someone going off to war.”
For The IDF?
Both Rabbi Skolnik and David Everett observed that it is quite possible that more prayers are invoked in synagogues in this country today for Israeli soldiers than for American ones.
While fully supporting prayers for members of the IDF, they felt it was the responsibility of American Jews to highlight and appreciate the protection we receive from our own brave men and women.
Is fighting al Qaeda any less incumbent on Jews than other Americans, asks Rabbi Skolnik, who notes with pride that his son-in-law, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is about to enter the chaplaincy in the Navy.
David Everett offered a Kol Nidre sermon upon his return from Iraq, calling on fellow congregants to be more attuned to the realities of war and the daily sacrifices being made on their behalf.
“When we turn on the radio in the morning and hear that two soldiers from the Fourth Infantry Division were killed at a checkpoint in Baghdad, or three Marines were killed in fighting in Fallujah, how many of us even put down our toothbrushes to think about their sacrifice and the loss to their loved ones? How many of us even bother to read the names listed in the ‘Names of the Dead’ column in The New York Times, read how old they were and where they came from?”
Noting that America “will only remain the land of the free as long as she is the home of the brave,” he asked his fellow congregants to “remember both the dead and the living in your thoughts and prayers.”
Everett will be spending Monday, Memorial Day, taking part in a communal ceremony at 8 p.m. at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side, sponsored by the Council of Young Jewish Presidents and the Jewish Relations Community Council of New York, and honoring the nation’s fallen heroes. It will include remarks from Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Col. Jack Jacobs, and Melinda Kane, mother of Lance Cpl. Jeremy Kane, who was killed in Afghanistan in January.
How fitting it would be if this service, and others like it, were filled to the rafters with grateful members of our community, of all ages, remembering those who came before and praying for the safety of those who serve today, tomorrow and the next day.
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