The Yom Kippur War in Delaware: Reflections 40 years later

Most of the Jews in the US did not know what was happening except to hear about the trials and tribulations of Israel in the war.

By DAVID GEFFEN
October 12, 2013 20:58
A jeep makes its way toward Syria during the Yom Kippur War.

Jeep on way to Syria Yom Kippur War 370. (photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)

I first met now-Vice President Joe Biden, then a candidate for Senate, in the succa of Ruth and Bernie Siegel in 1972.

Biden was running against a long term Delaware senator, and the Jewish community of Delaware wanted a new face in Washington, DC. This aspiring young man was welcomed at every Jewish event during the campaign season. After his election, he began his first term in January 1973.

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It was a pleasant surprise when I saw him again with 2,000 Delaware Jews at a Yom Kippur War Rally on October 9 1973. But more on that later.

From the moment Barbara and Richard Longwill pulled up next to me as I walked to Beth Shalom synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, October 6, 1973, my life as a rabbi changed considerably for the next few weeks. Barbara and Richard, very close friends, stopped to tell me that Israel was enduring a surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian troops, the Yom Kippur War.

Richard’s cousin was one of the few tank commanders stationed right on the Suez Canal under intense fire from thousands of Egyptian troops.

Since they feared for his life, they gave me this young man’s name and asked me to pray for him. Then they left, and I wandered, with my mind elsewhere, for the final two blocks to the synagogue where I was the rabbi.

When I reached the shul, Bernie Siegel was waiting for me. For a number of years, he had been the High Holiday chairman for the synagogue.

More importantly, Bernie and his wife were the leading Zionist activists in Wilmington and the largest contributors of funds for investment in Israel. They gave to the Federation, but they did much more because of their love for Israel.

On that October morning, he made it clear an inspirational message was needed during the services.

My predecessor, Rabbi Jacob Kraft, had a deep interest in Israel from his youth in Boston. The sister of Leah, the rabbi’s wife, had made aliya 18 years earlier with her family, and were living in Rehovot. It was only right that he should speak so I readily bowed to my senior colleague in this instance.

His words sharply pointed at “the traitorous acts of the Egyptians and Syrians attacking Israel on the holiest day of the year,” and made everyone sit up and listen. When he spoke that Yom Kippur, the hearts of all those present were stirred. When he said, we all must do our utmost for our brothers and sisters, the 1,000 congregants recognized he was talking to them.

Clearly, that was what Bernie Siegel and other leaders of the Delaware Jewish Federation wanted to occur.

After the services fraught with emotion, I learned that Tuesday, only a few days away, had been selected for the giant community rally. Wilmington Jewry had to do its share and do it without hesitation.

I have to admit that the news being carried on the TV was disturbing. It sounded like the two attacking nations were going to tear Israel apart and murder as many Israelis as they chose to do. The Security Council of the UN was quiet – not really ready to act.

President Richard Nixon made some unkind remarks. Only Henry Kissinger as the secretary of state and prior to that, a presidential security adviser, was defending Israel on the TV, radio and in the press.

Most of the Jews in the US did not know what was happening except to hear about the trials and tribulations of Israel in the war. American Jews were nonplussed because Golda Meir was the prime minister, and Moshe Dayan was the defense minister.

How could these two have failed to recognize signs that the attack was imminent? Thousands of soldiers would ultimately die because of the miscalculations of these Israeli leaders.

At a secret briefing for community leadership, Tuesday morning, October 9, we heard about the Israelis slowing down the Syrian tank convoys, but the Egyptians were still basically triumphant.

The question was raised by many – what will happen to the Israelis? Will they be annihilated? Irving Shapiro, only recently chosen CEO of the DuPont company, calmed us all.

“Do you think that president Nixon will permit his major ally in the Middle East to be destroyed?” he asked. “We must look at these hostilities from a global perspective. Russia is supplying Egypt and Syria and training them how to use the weaponry and the planes. The US has assisted Israel in ways none of us even know about. America will take a major step to insure that Israel does not lose.”

Well, we thought – he is the top man at DuPont, so we can trust him as his company does.

Then Shapiro added: “The Jews of this country have to collect as much money as possible to care for Israel’s needs other than all the major war supplies.”

From Saturday night, when Yom Kippur ended, until this meeting, private solicitations had been underway so these major gifts could be announced at the Tuesday night rally. The chair of the campaign, Gilbert Spiegel, was already mapping out the 1974 Delaware funding process when the war hit. His plans for 1974 were now transformed into “We Do our Share for Yom Kippur War and 1974 too!”

A close friend, Richard Kane, president of the Delaware Jewish Federation, was to be one of the speakers at the big rally on Tuesday.

When the meeting, mentioned earlier, was finished, Richard asked me to stay so I could listen to what he planned to say. He and I had become very close through the study of the parsha of the week every Thursday morning at his office or mine. I grew to respect my answer – he agreed.

I listened to his speech 40 years ago, and I recall that he was trying to cite too many other people. I suggested that he use the word “I” more so the attendees would know – this is what he truly believed.

He liked that and said that he would makes the necessary changes.

Richard Kane really made a big hit at the rally with almost 2,000 people present. Before the second speaker began, Senator Joseph Biden rushed on to the stage. He was out of breath but asked the president if he could say something. The atmosphere was electric.

Senator Biden condemned these Arab nations for their surprise attack. They thought that starting a war on Yom Kippur would give them the victory. How wrong they are as well as their Russian overlords, he said with great fervor. The US will help Israel triumph. And you my fellow Delawareans must do your share.

The applause exploded from the audience and Biden waved to the crowd.

Gilbert Spiegel, campaign chairman, concluded the event. He quoted Greer Fay Cashman, a journalist who had phoned in a story to the Anglo-Jewish editors organization.

“Israeli forces are outnumbered six-to-one, by the Arab combined forces. The disproportionate ratio proves once again how the Biblical David, today Israel, can still demonstrate its fighting supremacy over these Goliath opponents” and then a pause, “with the assistance of world Jewry.

“There has been no panic on the part of the Israeli population,” he said proudly weaving his words with the text from Israel. “Blackout orders have been scrupulously observed throughout the country and headlights have been painted black. Windows have been taped so no shattering of glass in case bombs fall. Streets are almost deserted – even in the evenings Israelis stay at home listening to their radios and the one channel TV news.

“Israeli Army sources are optimistic – Arab news provides a different story,” he continued.

“From the frontlines, with shells exploding in the background, the commentators broadcasting indicate that the Israeli forces are making the Egyptian and Syrian armies realize that our troops will not be moved.”

His closing line – “I am asking all of you here tonight to be moved and become defenders of Israel in your way just as the Israeli Army is defending our nation with their lives.”

In the few days following the rally, it became clear that Israel’s main problem was a shortage of armaments. Russia was flying in military equipment to Egypt and Syria daily, but Nixon was not making a move.

I recalled what Shapiro had said – the US would not let Israel down. In this case an American Jew on the inside made it happen, secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

He lobbied Nixon until the president agreed to the airlift.

Tuesday afternoon, October 14, Bernie Siegel called me. “Rabbi, do you want to take a ride down to Dover Air Force base later?”

“Why” I asked.

“You do not want to miss this,” he said emphatically.

At seven in the evening we were admitted into Dover Air Force Base by the MPs at the gates. We got into a line with other cars, and were led to a spot near the large Starlifters and Galaxy Transport planes into which tanks, artillery weapons, ammunition and other supplies were being loaded.

Still a bit quizzical, I asked Bernie – “Where is this going?” With a smile and a tear in his eye, he remarked with confidence, “Israel.”

We should remember that the US airlifted, in the in the four weeks that followed, 22,325 tons of military supplies to Israel.

That made the difference, The Delaware Jewish Federation did its share raising a million dollars, for the first time, in an emergency UJA campaign.


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