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A Comforter and Friend on the Front Lines

How Rabbi Harry Richmond viewed his historic role as a chaplain in the U.S. Army

Naomi Sandweiss
November 11, 2020
‘Honolulu Advertiser,’ July 19, 1941
Rabbi Harry Richmond‘Honolulu Advertiser,’ July 19, 1941
‘Honolulu Advertiser,’ July 19, 1941
Rabbi Harry Richmond‘Honolulu Advertiser,’ July 19, 1941

In 1917, the year the U.S. entered World War I, Rabbi Harry Richmond was a newly minted graduate of Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, the culmination of nine years of higher education, including a stint at the University of Chicago and an undergraduate degree from University of Cincinnati. Richmond was regarded for his keen intellect, earning the Reform seminary’s top prize for academic achievement.

At a symbolic vote of the student body, Richmond had been the only student at Hebrew Union College to cast his vote opposing the U.S. entering WWI.

That same year, after Congress passed a law designating military chaplains for various religious groups, the Jewish Welfare Board was established to attend to the spiritual needs of approximately 225,000 Jewish soldiers in the American armed forces. The board set about recruiting rabbis for chaplaincy service. According to Louis Barish in his 1962 article in The American Jewish Historical Quarterly called “The American Jewish Chaplaincy,” out of 400 English-speaking rabbis in the U.S., only 34 were endorsed—including Richmond, who received a JWB recommendation.

In July 1918, 28-year-old Richmond was the first rabbi to volunteer for military service in WWI, waiving his clerical exemption and enlisting as a private. It is unclear if Richmond had changed his position on the war, but his classmate and fellow chaplain, Rabbi Elkan Voorsanger, later expressed the concerns of himself and others—like Richmond—who volunteered to serve despite opposing the war; Voorsanger is quoted in Albert I. Slomowitz’s book Fighting Rabbis: Jewish Military Chaplains and American History:

“I am entering this war to register my protest against the war,” he wrote. “I can do that in no better way than to go to the front to alleviate the suffering of those who know not why they go.”

Over the next 25 years, Richmond would serve as an Army Chaplain on the battlefield in France, witness the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and serve as the only Jewish chaplain to represent the U.S. Army overseas in both WWI and WWII.

Richmond, an immigrant from Beresnitz, Russia, by way of England and Canada, served in the pulpit of Temple Aaron in Trinidad, Colorado, before joining the 34th “Sandstorm” division at Camp Cody near Deming, New Mexico, 500 miles away. A fellow soldier recalled Richmond in a 1921 Jewish Press article:

“a leader of men … I have seen him, wearied of body after a day of intense drilling … the center of an enthralled group of doughboys. Not preaching, for the doughboy hated that, but speaking quietly and earnestly.”

In 1918, Richmond shipped out to Bordeaux, France, and was promoted to 1st lieutenant chaplain. At the time, according to Barish, there was only one chaplain for every 8,000 soldiers. Chaplains were responsible for coordinating educational and religious activities, such as language classes, religious services, and holiday observances. Richmond was given a car by the Jewish Welfare Board to use in carrying out his responsibilities while in France. In France, according to Voorsanger—as quoted in The Fighting Rabbis:

“a chaplain was a Chaplain. Not a Jewish Chaplain, a Catholic Chaplain or a Protestant. Each Chaplain was responsible for the religion of every man, and it didn’t matter to us how a man prayed, but that he prayed.”

Indeed, as Jessica Cooperman writes in The Jewish Welfare Board and Religious Pluralism in the American Military of World War I, the appointment of Jewish chaplains marked a turning point in American history: “Judaism was recognized by the state, along with Protestantism and Catholicism, as a fundamentally American religion.”

After 10 months of service, Richmond was honorably discharged, retaining a rank of captain in the Officer Reserve Corps. Rabbi Richmond returned to the pulpit, this time at Temple Beth El in Rockaway, New York, where he established an interfaith Thanksgiving service in 1927 that continues to this day.

In 1930, Richmond took the pulpit at Congregation Emanu-El in Wichita, Kansas, and continued to promote ecumenical activities while opposing activities of local Nazi sympathizers, including publisher and would-be politician Gerald Winrod. Together with two priests and a minister, known as the Four Horsemen of Tolerance, Rabbi Richmond traveled throughout Kansas to warn voters about Winrod’s views. According to writer Seth Bate, Richmond recalled his “tolerance tour.”

“We visited nearly every city and town in Kansas,” Richmond said. “Always together,” a Catholic, two Protestants and a Jew, “we tried to explain that this kind of hate had no place in America, in a democracy. We pointed out that the constitution asks for fraternity, equality and good will.”

Ultimately, the Four Horsemen were successful in defeating Winrod’s political campaign and continued to work together on a variety of ecumenical projects.

Richmond married his Pennsylvania-born wife, Helena (nee Rittenberg), 18 years his junior and a graduate of the Pratt Institute, in 1936. Their daughter, Yonah, was born in Kansas in 1937.

Fatefully, in early 1941, Richmond, then 51, was called to active Army service and he, his wife, and young daughter were shipped to Honolulu. In a July 1941 interview with the Honolulu Advertiser, Richmond reflected on his experiences as a WWI chaplain.

“I scarcely saw a day pass without deeply moving experiences, tragic and unforgettable. A chaplain isn’t in the thick of such things for didactic purposes, of course. He’s there to fraternize with the fellows, be one of them, their comforter and friend.”

According to several accounts, on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, Richmond was relaxing in his quarters in Schofield Barracks when he heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and rushed to the hospital. Robert Gushwa notes in The Best and Worst of Times: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1920-1945:

Chaplain Harry P. Richmond, a Jewish Rabbi, remembered his feelings that day of infamy. He heard about the attack on the radio and rushed to the hospital where, “observing patients; some on stretchers on the floor, others on whites sheets in beds, you knew that war, with all its unspeakable horror and terror was here ... sooner than we dared to expect. ... It was time for action, for ministration, for help to those who were first in service and sacrifice for God and country.

Richmond was one of three chaplains to conduct funeral services in Hawaii following the attack, and served as one of 311 rabbis for 500,000 Jewish U.S. soldiers, Slomovitz notes in The Fighting Rabbis. Military chaplaincy was not without dangers. In fact, four of Richmond’s fellow U.S. Jewish chaplains died in service in 1943.

In 1945, after serving in the Pacific, Richmond returned to the pulpit at Congregation Emanu-El, committed to continuing his ecumenical and activist work. At a 1952 meeting on “The Future of Brotherhood,” attended by 400 Kansans of all faiths, the rabbi argued that there would be no peace on earth until the people of the white race realize they have no inherent superiority, arguing, according to The Catholic Advance: “The tide of restlessness the world over will increase evermore until all races are given equally in heart and mind.”

Richmond’s sermons were heard regularly on Wichita’s Interfaith Chapel radio and compiled into a book, God on Trial, published in 1955. A year later, the rabbi and his wife relocated to Clearwater, Florida, where he took the pulpit of the newly established Temple B’nai Israel.

Richmond ended his career with a stint as chaplain at the University of Rhode Island. After a long and distinguished rabbinical career, Richmond, a man of great principle, intellect, and empathy, died in 1976. He is buried alongside his fellow servicemen and women in Long Island National Cemetery.

Naomi Sandweiss is the author of Jewish Albuquerque, and a past president of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society.