When Dov Peretz Elkins was ordained a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1964, he entered the US Army as a chaplain and was assigned to Fort Gordon, just outside of Augusta, Georgia. Elkins, who made aliyah with his wife Maxine several years ago, recently reminisced about developing a Hanukkah program for 18- and 19-year-old trainees from New York who were the majority of the Jewish personnel at his installation.
“These young men, drafted just after they finished high school, were away from home for the first time in their lives. This was a half a century ago, long before most Jewish high schoolers traveled extensively in their teens as they do now. The Jewish chaplain had his work cut out for him. Since these soldiers were searching for something to fill their lives, I was presented with an opportunity to touch them Jewishly.”
Initially, Rabbi Elkins held the High Holy Day services. A veteran in working with youth movements, and having been a counselor at Camp Ramah, he understood that the services had to be offered in a way that attracted the young men to be actively affiliated.
“Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, back then, were holidays that the soldiers wanted to attend. There they saw others from different units who were old acquaintances or were friendly with people that they both knew. Only a couple of weeks after arriving at my post, our chapel was packed for the High Holy Days.”
As Hanukkah approached, Elkins had an entire new group of trainees, since soldiers spent only two months at Fort Gordon. “As most of the young soldiers probably had not been in a synagogue since their bar mitzvah and had not been with us for Rosh Hashanah, I decided that providing them a brief taste of Jewish warmth would make them feel most welcome.”
A key rule, which every rabbi entering the American military learns quickly, is that a Jewish chaplain must know how to obtain kosher food of all types. In Elkins’ case, he arranged with the Jewish community in Augusta to provide for “a heimish Hanukkah celebration with latkes and apple sauce, sufganiot and cookies in the shape of a Jewish star covered with blue and white icing.” He also was aware this Hanukkah celebration at the Jewish chapel had a great chance to work because “the men were not allowed to have a hanukkiah in their World War II wooden barracks.”
Throughout his career, Elkins has been noted for the creative services he has developed to make holiday observance more meaningful. For Hanukkah at Fort Gordon, he fashioned a service with a twofold meaning. On the one hand the lighting of the candles and the singing of Hanukkah songs became a moving prelude for giving thanks to God through the use of the Hallel service – retranslated and given contemporary meaning. At that time in American history, as well, the soldiers had been indoctrinated that their struggle against the Vietnamese enemy would be a blow against Communism. Therefore, at Hanukkah, the spiritual ideal and the democratic ideal blended together to help Jewish soldiers feel more Jewish.
AT THE same time that Elkins was serving at Fort Gordon, Alan Greenspan was serving in Vietnam. Hanukkah was a time to help Jewish soldiers abroad feel better, as they, along with thousands of others, were fighting for their lives so they could ultimately return home. Greenspan, based in Saigon, had Hanukkah services, with candle-lighting there, and also traveled throughout the country to see the Jewish soldiers in the field where they were based.
He also provided treats sent by the women’s Jewish Welfare Board group. As the pictures show, Greenspan even fried latkes for the troops. These Vietnam images capture that Hanukkah experience some 50 years ago.
Elkins was motivated by his military experience to research and to write a book for teenagers on the American Jewish chaplaincy called God’s Warriors. When it appeared in 1976, the volume was added to the Jewish participation in the Bicentennial of the United States of America. In the work, he traced the history of the American Jewish chaplain, who was permitted to serve only because of the intervention in 1862 of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
Since then many rabbis have served and a number have made the supreme sacrifice. In fact, in World War II, when over half a million Jewish men and women were in the United States armed forces, some 331 Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis served as chaplains. Two Hanukkah tales
of World Wars I and II demonstrate how important its observance was.
In 1943, Chaplain Edward Sandrow, a young man then and later the president of the Synagogue Council of America, was stationed in Alaska. The first night of Hanukkah was to be observed in an arctic night. Arriving well-clothed for the service were “men in parkas, mukluks, fur hats – manborne fortresses against snow and sleet. They crowded the warm, lighted mess hall whose windows were blacked out by the heat from within and the frost from without.”
Sandrow described that evening in his chaplain’s report to the Jewish Welfare Board coordinator in New York, Chaplain Aryeh Lev.
“Every activity is halted as the Hanukkah lights are lit. A mood of seriousness, of historical reflection pervades the atmosphere,” Sandrow emphasized. “For a moment we forgot our war. We are transplanted in time and space to Judea. We praise God for a military and spiritual victory that in its time brought surcease to Jewish pain.”
Together they sang “Maoz Tzur.” Hope was felt in the air, but it was almost two more years before victory over the Nazis and Japanese would end the terrible conflagration and the murder of six million innocent Jews would be known.
“Then a babel of sounds bursts forth, shrieks, laughter,” the chaplain focuses on the flavor of the latkes fried by a Jewish mess sergeant and the gefilte fish dropped by air for an additional Hanukkah treat. “The Hanukkah lights danced; dreidels made from carefully carved wood surplus were spun; music provided by a captain and a corporal inspired more singing.”
Sandrow’s celebration with his troops was in his words, “a link to a deathless, vibrant way of life.”
ONE OTHER tale was told to me by Rabbi Elkins – about Hanukkah out West in World War I. Fort Sill, Oklahoma has been the major artillery training base in the US Army for over a century. In 1917, just over a hundred Jews were stationed there, waiting to hear whether they would be sent overseas. Fortunately, most of them never got such orders.
For Hanukkah that year, there were few supplies and no chaplain. Displayed by the men were Hanukkah candles and a few handcrafted hanukkiot made from shell casings collected after the firing of the big guns for training was completed.
One of the Jewish soldiers was Eddie Jacobson of Kansas City, Missouri. His friend, an officer, Captain Harry Truman, was also stationed there. For the celebration itself, a few local Jewish women in the nearby town of Lawton Oklahoma made potato latkes and brought them out to the soldiers along with cans of apple sauce and cherries.
Jacobson invited his friend to participate in the event. A devout Christian, Truman had never experienced a hanukkiah lighting in Kansas City, but that night in 1917 he did.
The legend of that gathering suggests that as the lights were kindled and as the story of the Maccabees’ triumph was related, Truman listened very intently and said. “I think the Jewish people should have its own land again.”
Who knows what he did say, but on May 14, 1948, as president of the United States, he was the first world leader to recognize the new State of Israel.
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