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The Rabbi in Wartime

In the fog of war, one chaplain made a difference. So, a grateful veteran decided to learn more about the man he once knew.

Hillel Kuttler
November 11, 2014

For a half-century, the Vietnam War has taken huge bites of Richard Eisenberg’s soul, plaguing him with memories of battles fought and friends lost. He certainly didn’t want to go. In 1960, he graduated Thomas Jefferson High School and bounced between jobs at banks in Manhattan before reaching Vietnam. “I wasn’t doing a whole lot with my life,” he says now. So, hoping to pre-empt the inevitable draft notice, he enlisted in the Army, took eight weeks of basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., then was off to Fort Gordon, Ga., for another two months to become a military policeman. That, he figured, might keep him stateside.

It didn’t. Eisenberg got to Vietnam in August 1964. He’d return, shattered, the following summer.

Lots of vets have rituals to help ease the painful memories: regular visits to the memorial in Washington, drinking sessions with VFW or American Legion buddies. Eisenberg’s ritual is different. He says Kaddish for a fallen friend—one who died not by a bullet but of a heart attack, a military chaplain whom he met just four times.

Every December, Eisenberg, 72, lights a candle on the yahrzeit of the chaplain, a rabbi. Standing in his kitchen those evenings for all these years—first in Brooklyn, then after moving to Denver—he speaks a few words to his wife and two daughters about the rabbi and his loss. He recites a prayer and strikes a match.

Fifty years since the rabbi’s death and a century since his birth, the rabbi’s light flickers in Eisenberg’s soul. But lately the ritual has new heft. For the rabbi’s memory led Eisenberg on a journey, two years ago, across the country, bringing new people into his life, men and women who, in their own very different way, loved the rabbi, too.

Early October 1964: Someone shook Pvt. Richard Eisenberg’s shoulder, waking him from an afternoon slumber in the tin hut he called home.

“Who the hell are you?” Eisenberg blurted. He looked up to see the stripes and insignia on the visitor’s shoulder, signifying a lieutenant colonel, a chaplain.

The visitor was Rabbi Meir Engel, a thin, bespectacled, no-nonsense, witty man who retained a trace of his sabra accent from his native Tel Aviv. Engel had come to the U.S. Army’s air base at Soc Trang, along the Mekong River Delta at Vietnam’s southern tip, because that’s what military chaplains did.

Engel loved his job. He’d arrived in Vietnam that summer, right around the time Eisenberg did. He’d fought in the Haganah para-military organization and departed pre-state Israel for New York in 1937 to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary. But Engel left his first pulpit, in Philadelphia, to volunteer in the U.S. military, and he was sent to postwar Japan. He returned to the United States to lead congregations in Greensboro, N.C., and Beverly, Mass., but gave up synagogue life for the chaplaincy, which included serving the Army Command in Heidelberg, Germany, then South Korea and two posts stateside.

“One could see a glow in his eyes and sense the pride in his voice as he described the hurdles he had overcome in order to serve effectively in Vietnam,” wrote a fellow chaplain, Aryeh Lev, in 1964, of a retreat they attended in Tokyo.

Engel “was filled with the joy one derives from feeling needed,” Lev wrote.

Standing in the private’s hut that day, Engel was needed to deliver a singular message: Eisenberg, write home.

“He read me the riot act on the responsibility I have to my parents and my sister. It made me want to cry, to tell you the God’s honest truth,” Eisenberg says now. “I was not being a dutiful son—not writing home. It had a lot to do—I’m not going to lie—with alcohol and drugs. I didn’t want to be there.”

Soon it was Engel’s typed letter that reached Eisenberg’s parents, Samuel and Ida, in Flatbush, a Brooklyn neighborhood. It was dated Oct. 16, 1964.

My dear Mr. & Mrs. Eisenberg,

I should like to introduce myself to you. I am the recently assigned Jewish chaplain to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.

My reason for writing you is that I met your son, Pvt. Richard Eisenberg, during my recent visit to his place of assignment at Soc Trang. I visit there once a month, and am happy to see that he finds the time to meet with the only rabbi stationed there.

I am a father and know of the fears and anxieties parents harbor for their children. It is because of this knowledge that I am writing you to alleviate your concern for your son. I saw Richard, he looks well, is hard working and is counting time till his return to the bosom of his family.

Should there be anything I can do for him or for you, just let me know and I shall do my utmost to comply with your request.

The Eisenbergs had made plenty of requests already—pestering the Pentagon, a member of Congress and even, so family lore has it, President Lyndon Johnson—in a vain attempt to ascertain how their son was faring. Now, finally, they knew something.

Later that month: A Cobra gunship touched down at Soc Trang, a small base surrounded by miles upon miles of rice paddies. Wounded soldiers were carried out hurriedly.

Eisenberg squatted at the helicopter’s door. He held dual jobs: two days on, two days off as a military policeman; two days on, two days off flying as a door gunner. The latter was a task Eisenberg volunteered for to lessen his colleagues’ load, but the job was perilous. Door gunners trained their M-60 machine guns on threats that could bring down the helicopter ferrying troops into combat and picking them up a week later—or retrieving “whatever was left of them” by then, Eisenberg explains now.

This was a “whatever was left of them” trip, and the commotion on the tarmac was as heavy as the rain then falling. A lone figure wearing a camouflage poncho rushed up. Eisenberg didn’t know who he was. Then recognition came.

“I’ll get to you later, Richard,” Engel told him as he ran off with a casualty. Recalling the scene nearly a half-century later, Eisenberg corrects himself. “No—he said, ‘I’ll get to you later, Reuven.’ He used my Hebrew name.”

Later, the two men stood under a canopy outside the base’s hospital, the rain still pounding. The chaplain gave the soldier a hug. “You’re doing a good job,” the chaplain said.

The gesture was timely. Eisenberg was in a sour mood.

“It’s not a good day,” he said, “when your guys are hurt.”

November 1964: The hurt was Mrs. Eisenberg’s back in Brooklyn, and on this day the chaplain who came to convey it barged into Eisenberg’s tent and pulled rank.

The lieutenant colonel ordered the private to write a letter home.

Nov. 20, 1964

My dear Mrs. Eisenberg:

I had delayed answering your letter of 3 November, 1964, until after my monthly visit to Soc Trang. I returned from there yesterday and am happy to inform you that I saw Richard and spent some time with him.

I hope that you do not mind, but I had a “fatherly” talk with him concerning the importance of writing home regularly. I minced no words, for as a father of a son about the same age as Richard, I felt that it might do him some good. I also left with him a Hanukkah menorah and Hanukkah candles as well as a procedure sheet [about] how to light the candles and what blessings to recite. These, the menorah and candles, were sent to me for distribution to the Jewish men by the Jewish Welfare Board.

As I see Richard once a month, I shall continue to report to you. If there is anything else you would like me to do, just let me know.

Like the earlier one, this letter was typed on the Military Assistance Command’s stationery. Both concluded with Rabbi Engel’s signature, but this one added a handwritten flourish.

Enclosed is a letter written by your son. I told him that I wanted to enclose a letter from him to you with mine.

Engel’s intervention was personal. He couldn’t fathom someone cutting himself off from family. Colleagues would remember his longing for his wife and two sons. In a memorial book published after Engel’s death, Lt. Col. John T. Calter, a fellow chaplain, told of running a retreat in Vietnam for Catholic soldiers at which several lauded Engel. Calter saw Engel soon after the retreat.

“I don’t want to flatter you, Meir, but our Catholics are all singing your praises,” Calter said.

Engel responded: “Please don’t worry about [not] flattering me today. I can use some. I miss my wife, Myra, and my morale is low.”

A Jewish soldier, Earl Kulp, an assistant program officer, wrote this of Engel in the memorial book: “No man in Vietnam felt his separation from his family more deeply [or] counted the remaining days of his separation more fervently and loudly.”

That likely explained Engel’s twisting Eisenberg’s arm to write the letter. It arrived, together with Engel’s, in Flatbush in a now-long-yellowed envelope, franked postage-free. The Eisenbergs kept it, then Richard inherited it, now one of his daughters has it, and eventually her sons will get it.

“He sat down with me, like a father, for a couple of hours, telling me how important it was for a Jewish son to respect his family,” Eisenberg recalls. “Me, a 22-year-old punk from Brooklyn, N.Y. I did not learn that lesson. Rabbi Engel taught me that lesson.”

Early December 1964: The rabbi sat beside Eisenberg in the office of the base’s commander, Maj. Joseph Levinson. Engel’s visit, like the previous ones, had boosted the base’s Jewish population to three.

Levinson sat at his desk, Engel and Eisenberg on the couch opposite. The trio schmoozed for 10 minutes, but Eisenberg felt out of place among officers. He made to leave.

“Sir, I think it’s about time I got back to my duty,” Eisenberg said, rising.

“Carry on,” Levinson said.

“No, you should stay a little longer,” Engel said, coaxing him back onto the sofa.

Decades later, Eisenberg scratches his head, reviewing Engel’s response.

He comes up with this: “It was because I was one of his boys, one of his Jewish boys in Vietnam. I sat back down, and he put his arm around me. Just chit-chatting. The rabbi made me feel I belonged in the room.”

The trio remained 20 minutes more. Engel asked Eisenberg, “Are you writing your family on a regular basis?”

“Yes,” Eisenberg replied.

Later that month: Levinson rushed up to Eisenberg on the tarmac.

“Why weren’t you at the service?” the commander asked.

“What service?” Eisenberg responded.

“Rabbi Engel passed away,” he was told.

In the early hours of Dec. 16, Engel had died of a heart attack at the U.S. Naval Hospital, in Saigon. He was 50.

Eisenberg slumped in shock, then anger at his commander. He still can’t fathom Levinson’s neglecting to convey such crucial news when it was fresh, when he could have attended Engel’s funeral, said a proper goodbye.

Not being there for Engel, when Engel was there for him—the pain torments Eisenberg still.

“I was devastated,” Eisenberg says now, “and I carried that devastation with me all my time in Vietnam, and since then.”

Sept. 13, 2012: Eisenberg and his sister, Ellen Racioppi, began the five-hour drive from Staten Island, N.Y., to Washington, D.C. The day before, they’d visited their parents’ graves, Sept. 14 being Ida’s birthday. Eisenberg, a retired postal worker, returns east once a year, but this trip was different. He’d come to make his peace at another grave, of sorts, one he’d never brought himself to visit. And he came prepared.

The siblings reached the nation’s capital and headed directly to a pointy-tipped stretch of black granite on the National Mall. Eisenberg searched the log book nearby. Of 58,195 dead—one. He found a name in the book and stepped to the reflective stone that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Meir Engel.

Eisenberg touched the letters carved into the stone on Panel 1E, Line 77. He contemplated, etched the letters onto a paper.

He knelt a moment and placed an envelope on the ground.

Rabbi Engel—you will never know how much you meant to me, read the handwritten, capital-block letters on the inside of the greeting card that came illustrated with a Jewish-star charm.

From the time we first met, you holding me by the neck and ordering me to sit down and write my family, to all those visits on the base for me. It has taken 48 years to get this out of me. Though this is a long time coming and you are long gone, know this: You are never, never—ever—forgotten.

Eisenberg had written his name and unit, the 560th Military Police Company of the 121st Aviation Company, on the card. To the Engel family, the card continued, beneath a hand-drawn line:

I knew Meir all too briefly in Vietnam.

I only wish that I made an effort to contact you sooner. I want you all to know what a wonderful and caring man he was, and I am sorry for your loss. The world was a better place while he was with us. I know that the rabbi would be glad to know that I am at peace now, and I hope that you are as well.

Dad did it.

“He finally had the courage to see D.C., the Vietnam Wall,” Dayna Eisenberg Perez thought that afternoon. He was foremost in her mind as she sat before her home computer in suburban Denver, the day’s work teaching English as a second language to high-school students over.

“OK, I’ll search again,” she thought, typing MEIR ENGEL into a search engine.

Not much came up in her spotty attempts over the years. She’d long wanted to see what Engel, the man of legend, looked like, learn about his career and whether he’d left behind a family—fsomething. Always—fnothing.

This day, though, she got scores of hits, mainly Jewish-newspaper articles about a ceremony nearly a year earlier at Arlington National Cemetery, a mile from where her father was likely standing with his sister that very moment.

Jewish Chaplains Memorial—that’s what the articles called the rounded-off plaque mounted on stone. On Chaplains Hill in the country’s most revered graveyard, on the banks of the Potomac, a new monument had been dedicated on Oct. 24, 2011, joining those memorializing the 150 Protestant and the 65 Catholic chaplains who’d died in service. The Jewish plaque, plain but elegant, said tons by saying so little: just 14 names, 14 dates of death, 14 titles of rabbi. The men represented the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox branches of Judaism and had died while serving the U.S. military during the period running from World War II through the Korean War and on to Vietnam.

Only one of the 14 served in all three wars.

Meir Engel.

The program the Jewish Chaplains Council published for the ceremony stated that Engel earned an award for his service in each war, along with two Bronze Stars, two Army Commendation Medals and B’nai B’rith’s Four Chaplains Award. One commendation medal was for serving at Fort Dix, where he remained until 1962, two years before Eisenberg got there for basic training.

Four of the men memorialized on the new plaque died during the Vietnam War. But calculating how many American Jewish military chaplains served in Vietnam then is “tricky,” says Albert Slomovitz, author of the book The Fighting Rabbis: Jewish Military Chaplains and American History, because some may have been based elsewhere, like in Japan, and dropped in periodically or were reservists called up for short-term service.

Those based in Vietnam and on full-time active duty were “probably under a minyan’s worth,” he says, fewer than 10.

Eisenberg Perez didn’t know this, but she saw the rabbi’s name mentioned in several articles—his surname, anyway. That’s because a man named David Engel spoke at the Arlington ceremony, but his connection wasn’t stated.

Eisenberg Perez guessed at David Engel’s identity. She went onto Facebook and typed his name. A posting she read mentioned his being Meir’s son.

“Oh, my God!” she thought. “He has living sons!”

Oct. 11, 2012: Eisenberg had returned from Washington. He showed off his pictures of the Vietnam wall, of his hand resting against it, of Engel’s name. He told his family about leaving the card, knowing that no Engel kin would see it. Just as well that he’d made copies beforehand, the better to reread the emotions he had difficulty expressing.

“You’re never going to believe this,” daughter told father as they stood in her kitchen. “Rabbi Engel has living children, and I have made contact with one of the sons.”

Eisenberg stopped by most days after picking up his grandsons Andrew, then 8, and Ryan, 4, from school while their parents were at work. Eisenberg Perez had just come home and delivered this bombshell.

Her father felt like he would pass out.

“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” he said.

He asked her to confirm that this could be true.

That night, Eisenberg Perez found David Engel’s home address online. Her fingers glided across the keyboard, typing what she later called “a crazy letter” of introduction.

The opening rambled with excitement, but Eisenberg Perez got herself on point.

Your father got my dad through the toughest of times in war, and when he died, a part of my dad died, too.

She went on:

Your father was a true hero and provided support, comfort and faith to Jewish soldiers in a time of war. My sister and I, growing up, would ask our father to tell us stories along with the pictures that he has from Vietnam, and in every story was mention of the chaplain, Meir Engel. Every year, my father lights a memorial candle in memory of your dad. My dad still has the old green “Jewish Bible” (as the military called it) that the Army provided all the men and women. He told me it’s the same one that he and Rabbi Engel prayed from.

And this, of David’s possibly being Meir’s son:

I got goose bumps thinking that I might be able to get in touch with you and tell my dad about the information that I have found! My heart almost stopped as I kept reading the articles. … I know that my dad would be honored to talk to you and tell you stories about your dad and to connect with you.

I would love to hear back from you! Either way, please let me know that you are the right person or that you are not.

Oct. 15, 2012: In Shelton, Conn., David Engel had a long day at work manufacturing promotional products. He opened the mail, stunned. Finally, he typed a response and emailed it to Eisenberg Perez.

I just arrived home and read your letter. It was incredible. Yes. I am proudly the son of the late Rabbi Meir Engel (Z”L). I would very much like to speak with you.

Forty-one minutes later, she wrote back.

I am so happy to hear that you are the son of the late Rabbi Engel. This is truly incredible and I am almost at a loss for words in disbelief. What an amazing story!

She told him she could speak by telephone after work.

The next morning, David telephoned his brother. “I’m going to forward something to you,” he told his brother, Rafael “Ray” Engel, who’d just arrived in his office at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is a professor of social work. “Make sure you’re alone when you read it.” David forwarded his exchange with Eisenberg Perez.

David was 20 and studying international economics at Berkeley when his father died. Ray was just 8, but he still recalls playing chess with his dad. Ray also remembers a drive they took along northern California’s famed 17-Mile Drive, back when Meir served at Fort Ord.

“You can’t help but remember stuff like that,” Ray says now.

He’s carried those images throughout life, and in telling of them and others Ray passed on bits of his father to his wife Sandy and then to their daughter Yael, now 23, and to their son, 21, who carries a familiar name: Meir Engel.

Ray and David kept the hundreds of letters their dad wrote to them and to their late mother. They also have a box filled with expressions of condolence sent by soldiers whose lives Meir had touched. Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. military in Vietnam, wrote. And one letter was from Navy Cdr. Ann Richman, the chief nurse at the naval hospital in Saigon. She knew Meir well from attending Friday night services regularly. She’d been off duty the night Meir admitted himself with chest pains, but was summoned and arrived just after he died.

He did not suffer, Richman wrote. He had been given medication to relieve the discomfort, and the doctor and nurse attending him said he was resting very quietly at the time he slipped away. I want to assure you that everything medically was done to save him, but it was out of our hands … I had my prayer book with me and I said a little prayer at the bedside.

Meir’s last written words were directed to David, just an hour before taking ill. On Dec. 15, Meir was up late in his room in Saigon’s Majestic Hotel, where many officers stayed. He was reading Howard Fast’s The Naked God. He found the book profound and, in a five-page letter to David, suggested that he read the book, too, although he couldn’t explain precisely why.

Meir abruptly turned personal.

My son, you have no idea how proud I am of your sense of order and law, your sensitivity of right and wrong, your desire for due process rather than the rule of the mob, he wrote with a thick-tipped blue pen, continuing for a few more sentences about rights and the ends justifying the means before realizing that “I am rambling” and “it is tomorrow” already.

I felt like communing with you, my son, whom I love with all my being and all my fiber. God bless you.

And then, using the Hebrew word, father signed off from son.


From the medical doctors’ notes, David Engel learned that right after penning those final words, his father walked to the hospital. At about 1:30 a.m., a half-hour after being admitted, he died.

But David Engel had never read anything like this—sentiments typed by a soldier’s child who related the profound effect his dad had on her dad.

After reading Eisenberg Perez’s letter that David had scanned and emailed to him, Ray forwarded it to his wife and children. He then wrote to Eisenberg Perez.

There are no words that I can say about what this letter means, let alone knowing how your father continues to honor the memory of my dad, my Abba. He died when I was eight, so I have only the memories of a young boy.

For a long time growing up, emotionally I could not understand why my Abba had to go to this place called Vietnam and why he never came home—even though rationally and intellectually I understood. Your letter and the memories of your dad speak volumes to help me answer the emotional part.

Ray’s students sometimes approach him at graduation to say they wouldn’t have received a diploma without him. The compliments gratify him, and they’re in the moment. “But 48 years later?” he says of Eisenberg Perez’s reaching out. “It’s overwhelming to think of the impact people can have on one another and how that persists over time. It’s remarkable to me that [someone who] had very little contact with my dad—some, very meaningful, over a four-month period of time—that this is so meaningful to them.”

David spoke with Eisenberg Perez that afternoon, and they did so many more times over the ensuing months. Eisenberg Perez and Ray communicated once by Skype— the first time Ray, a non-techie, used the video-calling system.

Still, writing, talking and viewing are not seeing.

David had a business trip scheduled for Las Vegas in January. The Engels would visit the Eisenbergs then.

The members of the second generation would meet.

The third generation, too.

Jan. 12, 2013: It developed in a flash: the discovery, emails, phone calls, planning the gathering. It all was so exciting.

And then this.

Eisenberg was hospitalized with chronic intestinal problems. He underwent emergency surgery.

It happened just as the Engels prepared to leave for Denver.

Eisenberg recuperated in a private room. He was up for the visit. On a shelf lay his little green Bible from Vietnam.

“I wanted to pay my respects so badly, and I had no way to do it,” he says. “And here, 48 years later, this opportunity comes and gets dropped in my lap.

“Everything happened so fast. They wanted to come and see me, which threw me for a loop. I knew what I had to do—I needed to make peace with them, and I needed to tell them how much their father meant to me.”

Eisenberg’s voice cracks, and the telephone line goes silent momentarily. He apologizes.

“Every time I think of it, I get so upset, that I forgot to tell them something. I should’ve asked [them] to pray with me, but I didn’t—to please say a prayer with me for your father.”

Eisenberg had worried he didn’t look respectable in front of the rabbi’s sons and their children, too. He was hooked up to oxygen, tape on his nose, medicated.

“I wanted to tell them how much I loved their father and grandfather,” he says.

Three generations of Eisenbergs and Engels had crammed into room 242 of Parker Adventist Hospital, near Denver. Dayna greeted the Engels in the lobby. David wrapped her in a big hug. The Engel-Eisenberg embrace was on. They rode up in the elevator.

For the Engels: Ray, Sandy, Yael, and Meir had flown in from Pittsburgh; David and his son Jonathan from Connecticut, and his daughter Joanna from California. David’s wife, Sharon, couldn’t make it.

For the Eisenbergs: Richard and his wife Jean, and Dayna and her husband Juan with their two sons. Dayna’s sister, Robyn Wisler, arrived late.

That made 14 people in the room. They all wanted to be there, if not there in the hospital. David told Dayna on the elevator ride that it didn’t matter whether the gathering was at Robyn’s house, as planned, in a hospital room, or even in a bathroom—the main thing was their being together.

Dayna and Richard spoke first, telling why Meir Engel was so important a figure in their lives. She passed around a scrapbook she’d once made of her dad’s Vietnam service.

David explained that Meir served as the U.S. military’s liaison to the Buddhist religious officials as they set up a chaplaincy within the South Vietnamese Army. Meir, who wore a Jewish chaplain’s insignia that depicts the 10 Commandments topped by a Star of David, apparently earned the Buddhists’ trust. As the liaison, David said, his father reported directly to Westmoreland.

That was the context. And here they all were, brought together by the present protagonist and the absent one.

Pvt. Richard Eisenberg: in Vietnam because he didn’t want to be drafted or sent there, so he’d enlisted, hoping that being on the military-police track might keep him stateside.

Lt. Col. Meir Engel: in Vietnam because he wanted to be there, because he couldn’t stomach “having 400 bosses” as a pulpit rabbi at an American synagogue “rather than teach and be a scholar,” as Ray Engel would tell me. “My uncle Alan, on my mother’s side, said that my dad didn’t like to kiss ass,” Ray would add. “My dad had written my brother a letter on his fears of what an American rabbi was becoming.”

The Israeli-American cleric and the Brooklyn-American grunt: one possessing the drive the other lacked, one embracing war’s challenges and the other absorbed in staying alive, one mature and the other finding himself, one the father and the other the son.

The patient handed gifts to the dead man’s flesh and blood: the silver-oak-leaf pin of a lieutenant colonel and the Jewish chaplains’ insignia, items he’d purchased at a shop on Buckley Air Force Base, not far from the hospital.

Eisenberg had hesitated about meeting the Engels. The burden would be heavy, he told his daughter.

Think of Ray and what he wrote, she’d responded. He lost his dad, his Abba, at 8.

Eisenberg understood. A good thing.

“For me, Rich was the first person I ever met who knew my dad in Vietnam,” Ray Engel says now, back in Pittsburgh, where he teaches young people to be good listeners so they can heal others. “Intellectually, I knew why my dad was in Vietnam, but this created a very human connection, and it made it real. To hear the story of their first meeting was quite touching and emotional.”

He continued: “I’m really, really touched that my dad—sorry, I’m going to get emotional—that my dad had that impact on a person,” Ray says. “It’s truly remarkable that he had that kind of influence on somebody he only had a few meetings with.”

The Engels and Eisenbergs have melded. Their yahrzeit flames illuminate. In Hebrew, Meir means “he who brings light.”

Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected].