May 19, 2024
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‘Enlisting in a Non-Jewish Army’ Is Not a Fair Depiction

I was taken aback by Rabbi Gil Student’s article (April 4, 2024). His discussion is halachically sound — but the context and examples are from a significantly different time and place. “Enlisting in a Non-Jewish Army” looks at what may have been Czarist Russia or the like; thus it is somewhat misleading.

Let’s speak, instead, of our United States. Jews have fought honorably in all of the nation’s wars. For example, if you go to Shearith Israel’s Chatham Square Cemetery in Lower Manhattan you will visit the graves of Jewish Revolutionary War soldiers. These were early American patriots, all of whom volunteered at great risk and great sacrifice.

American Jews have a long history of service. Formed after mistaken claims that Jews didn’t fight in the U.S. Civil War, the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. recently celebrated its 128th anniversary. We are the oldest continuously active veterans’ organization in America.

Rabbi Student’s discussion centers on conscription. Let’s look at the draft and military service. Unfortunately, the draft was inherently unfair: (1) Draft boards were gerrymandered, coupling affluent neighborhoods with ghettos. The latter provided numbers, while the former enjoyed easy deferments. (2) Medical deferments were sometimes questionable—bone spurs notwithstanding. (3) College studies provided a deferment for those who could afford to attend, and (4) Women were exempt from any form of conscription. It might be noted that during the Vietnam era more young men entered semicha programs because of the draft than due to Moses at Mount Sinai.

In early 1970, I received a personal letter signed by the president of the United States. President Nixon’s letter began with the word “Greetings.” Those of a certain vintage will recognize this as a draft notice. Despite being in graduate school and working to support my widowed mother, I lived within distance of a draft board that was desperate for recruits. My service was most rigorous, but not at all dangerous. After BCT – Basic Combat Training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, I served in the Army Chief of Staff’s Office at the Pentagon. I learned a lot and was privileged to serve with some of the finest people on “God’s Green Earth.” One of my officemates was a young lieutenant colonel who spoke a “bissel” Yiddish. He was Colin Luther Powell. In contrast, another lieutenant colonel from rural Ohio had never before met a Jew. When he invited me to his home, he bought a bottle of Magen David wine in a sincere attempt to make me feel welcome.

Kosher food wasn’t easy, but at Fort Campbell, the nearby Nashville, Tennessee, Jewish community kept our kosher food trailer well stocked. Throughout my service, the Jewish Welfare Board provided food. Today kosher MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) are available to all. There are many Jewish chaplains as well.

In the 1990s, I commanded a small team of other gray-haired colonels at the U.S. Army War College. Shortly after October 7, a few of these colleagues from two decades ago individually contacted me to relay their prayers and good thoughts for Israel.

I add, proudly, that many of my relatives have served. A cousin is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. My niece served in the U.S. Air Force in Kyrgyzstan. Many generations of Jews have served. If you go to a Jewish cemetery such as King Solomon in Clifton, you will see countless American flags, each commemorating the service of a Jewish veteran.

From my experience, the U.S. Army is not a “non-Jewish army,” but a mix of Americans with diverse backgrounds that reflects our great nation. God Bless the United States of America.

Carl A. Singer
Colonel, U.S. Army (retired)
Past National Commander
Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America
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