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Memorial Day Isn’t Just a Day Off

A new understanding of the holiday from a military perspective

David Frommer
May 23, 2014

This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, teaches that war and community are inextricably linked. “S’u et rosh kol adat b’nai Yisrael…Take a census of the whole eidah of Israel,” God instructs Moses. It’s a seemingly simple assignment. Find the eidah and count it. The question is: what’s an eidah? The answer is not so simple. In Biblical Hebrew, the word eidah means both “community” (the entire population) and “fighting force” (only the men who were young and fit enough to serve as soldiers). So which did God mean? And why the choice of an ambiguous term? I would argue that the counting of either group was not as important as the connection between the two.

It is instructive to consider this connection as we approach Memorial Day, which isn’t so much a time for care packages or helping service members—important work for the rest of the year, particularly on Veterans Day or Armed Forces Day—as it is a time to honor the dead for their ultimate sacrifice. In the military community, if you’ve lost a friend or loved one, Memorial Day is about grief and pain. In the military community, Memorial Day remarks are spoken and heard in a context of the personal.

Most civilians, however, do not share such a personal connection to Memorial Day. There is a blessing in that, for sure—we are fortunate to have secured a safer path for ourselves and our children. But there is also a curse—we have passed the burden of war on to others, and we have detached ourselves from its costs. For most, Memorial Day means little more than a long weekend. For those outside the military, it’s impossible to wrap the mind around the true meaning of the day.

Or is it? Like in any religious community, Jews have a special connection to others of our faith, regardless of what happens to separates us. The Talmud teaches us that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba zeh—all Jews are responsible for each other. This idea that as individual Jews we are part of a larger family has been the driving force behind our support for beleaguered Jewish communities around the world, from Russia to Argentina to Yemen, and it can similarly connect us to the 10,000 of our fellow American Jewish men and women who are currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. On this Memorial Day, let us mourn with the families of the 53 American Jewish men and women who have died while serving our country since September 11, 2001.

The stories of these men and women gave me a context of the personal. For me, the meaning of Memorial Day came from people like Army Captain Ben Sklaver, a native of Hamden, Connecticut, and a friend of one of my Hebrew Union College classmates. Ben served on the regional board of the Reform teen group NFTY and spent a high school semester in Israel. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tufts and founded a non-profit called the ClearWater Initiative, for villagers in Uganda. Ben was 32 years old and engaged to be married when, on October 2, 2009, he was killed by a suicide bomber who attacked his unit in a remote village in Afghanistan. The last time he spoke to his parents was four days earlier, on Yom Kippur.

My new understanding of Memorial Day came from people like Air Force First Lieutenant Roslyn Schulte, a native of St. Louis. Ros attended private school where she excelled at model UN and garnered All-American honors in lacrosse. She was confirmed at Temple Israel by Rabbi Mark Shook, who leads Shabbat services that my Mom now attends at her St. Louis retirement community. Ros bypassed the Ivy League and instead went to the Air Force Academy, where she graduated at the top of her class. Ros was 25 years old when, on May 20, 2009, she was killed by a roadside bomb that detonated beneath her convoy in Kabul—the first female graduate of the Air Force Academy to fall in combat during these recent wars. Her boyfriend, Air Force Captain Bruce Cohn, had planned to propose to her when she returned home from her deployment.

Like most of our Jewish service members, Ros Schulte was a Reform Jew, but Reform Jewish chaplains are largely absent from today’s military—only three have deployed overseas since 2001. Fortunately, Chaplain Henry Soussan, an Orthodox rabbi, was stationed in Kuwait at the time of Ros’ death and flew to Afghanistan to preside over her memorial service, which was scheduled to take place on Memorial Day itself.

When Chaplain Soussan arrived at Camp Eggers in Kabul, where Ros had been stationed, the installation chaplain asked him what he was planning for the service.

“I’ll give a eulogy and recite the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead,” Chaplain Soussan answered.

“That Jewish prayer,” the installation chaplain asked, “that won’t be in Hebrew, will it?”

“Yes,” Chaplain Soussan replied.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” the other chaplain said. “Memorial Day is for everyone, you know? And besides that, this will be broadcast on international TV and there’ll be a lot of top brass there.”

He listed the VIPs who would be in attendance, including the Afghan Interior Minister, the Afghan Chief of Staff, the American Ambassador to Afghanistan and General David McKiernan.

“General McKiernan is the top commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan,” the installation chaplain explained, “and he’s just been fired by President Obama. He won’t be in a good mood.”

Walking with the installation chaplain later that day, Chaplain Soussan met the Commanding General of Camp Eggers, who similarly asked about his plan for the upcoming memorial service.

“I had planned to say a prayer in Hebrew, if that would be all right,” Chaplain Soussan hesitantly said, as the installation chaplain looked on.

“Chaplain, we are Americans,” the Commanding General replied. “We have to honor our people as Americans, just as we would in America. You’re the rabbi…. Say whatever you want—as long as it’s not over five minutes!”

I may now have a context of the personal, but that doesn’t make the grief and the pain of Memorial Day any easier to face. The only way to face the true meaning of Memorial Day is with the strength of our entire American Jewish community. This Shabbat, in a historic example of such unity, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews are praying in three different New York synagogues from the same siddur—the siddur for the Jewish chaplains and service members of our Armed Forces. On this Shabbat Bamidbar, we pray as kol adat b’nai Yisrael, as the complete eidah of American Jewry, for the strength to walk this wilderness of war together, even in its saddest hours. Let us soon merit a future envisioned by our Prophets and quoted by George Washington, when “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

David Frommer is the first cantor ever to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. armed forces.