Rabbis Reporting for Duty

Every so often friends send me articles about fellow graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary who they think I might know. An excellent one appeared recently in Tablet about Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz and his Vietnam War military service as chaplain during Passover. I didn’t know Rabbi Schwartz, and as much as it pains me to reveal this about a colleague who retired in his 70s, I graduated JTS before he did. But we did have the same professors, including the revered Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Rabbi Schwartz did what many of my classmates did during the Vietnam War—they received deferments during seminary then served as chaplains after graduation. In my case, I had lost my only brother, Captain Arthur Freed, in an aircraft accident, so as the sole surviving son I was exempt from the draft. But one day while I was in class with Rabbi Heschel, we received word of the Sinai Campaign. Dr. Heschel was extremely agitated and ashen faced over this. He paced back and forth and muttered in Yiddish, and then in English, “our brothers and sons are dying to save the state of Israel.” The entire class was eager to help. Class was dismissed as we headed to the Israeli consulate to volunteer.

When we arrived, the consulate saw things a little differently than our teacher. “How many of you have served in the American military?” he asked.

Not a single hand went up.

“How many have fought in the IDF?”

Still no hands.

The consulate looked us over thoughtfully. “I’ll tell you what you can do. We need funds to support our military. Go out and spread the word far and wide that we need to raise money for this campaign to support Israel,” he said.

And that’s what we did. We may not have become soldiers, but it was an excellent example that everyone has something to give.

Photo credit: USO

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