The High Holy Days, 1966

Why do American rabbis enter the chaplaincy, and what was their role during the Vietnam war?

Chaplain Greenspan pops his head out of a tank. (photo credit: ALAN GREENSPAN)
Chaplain Greenspan pops his head out of a tank.
(photo credit: ALAN GREENSPAN)
 Let us return together to a time 48 years ago – a very hot, time.
Rabbi Benjamin Englander filled his New Jersey pulpit with words appropriate for that era.
“On this Rosh Hashana, we realize more than ever before the need for peace of mind and peace on earth. Vietnam is not important to us, nor is it a bastion of freedom, nor is it a testing place for democracy. We need peace.”
James Reston of The New York Times called for the truth. “The time has come to call a spade a bloody shovel. This country is in an undeclared and unexplained war in Vietnam.
Our masters have a lot of long and funny names for it, like escalation and retaliation, but it is war just the same.”
Whatever it was back in 1966, American Jews who had been drafted were serving in sizable numbers in all branches of the American military establishment.
Thus, in March 1966, when chaplain Alan Greenspan first reached Saigon from his posting at Fort Benning, Georgia – just before Passover – he knew that 1,500 Jewish personnel would be available for possible participation in the Sedarim. By Rosh Hashana 1966, another 2,000 Jewish soldiers had arrived, along with a sizable number of general troops.
“I knew that I had my work cut out for me,” he said, sitting in his Jerusalem apartment a few weeks ago. “I recognized the challenge that the Yamim Noraim [Days of Awe] in Saigon and the immediate vicinity could present.”
As Rosh Hashana itself drew closer in September 1966, US president Lyndon B.
Johnson had face-to-face meetings with the heads of the Jewish War Veterans and B’nai B’rith organizations. Supposedly, he said, “I cannot understand why you are not giving your support to the American approach to the Vietnam War.”
However, it is also known that Johnson had the US ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg, meet with American Jews to mollify his Jewish constituents. In the summer of 1966, Jewish adults and a large group of American Jewish youth who were not serving in the military raised public objections to the war. Thousands of other Jews had been drafted and were serving honorably.
When they left for Vietnam – as from the Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where I was assigned from 1965 to 1967 – they never knew whether they would return.
When Chaplain Greenspan returned to the US after his year in Vietnam, he was walking in uniform down a street in New York, and “a cab driver moved quickly through a puddle near me, so that I would be splattered with water. We, Vietnam veterans, were the symbols of what Americans wanted to forget.”
“You can only imagine how we felt. We had faced death and now, in our own country, we had become the sacrificial lambs.”
On the one hand the Vietnam vets came to be hated by American civilians.
On the other, they served as a patriotic answer to those American Jews who chose not to serve by going to Canada or enrolling in fictitious yeshivot.
A Jerusalem resident for over a decade, career chaplain Greenspan, an Orthodox rabbi, arrived in Saigon in March 1966 and spent a year there, until just after Purim 1967. My classmate at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Marine chaplain David Saltzman, was in Da Nang, Vietnam, for the same period. He and Greenspan were joined by chaplain David Lapp in Natrang.
After an over 20-year career in the chaplaincy, Lapp became director of the Jewish Welfare Board Chaplaincy Council. He was the civilian overseer for rabbis in the service, working closely with the Pentagon.
In my article in The Jerusalem Post for Passover 2009, I introduced readers to chaplain Greenspan, an individual who truly served with no fear whatsoever.
Three times a week from his Saigon base, he flew out to the battlefields to locate Jews and provide various religious services for them. His Saigon Sedarim, under fire, were a fitting memorial to that war.
By Rosh Hashana of September 1966, Greenspan was a rabbi in uniform with a keen sense of duty. He had developed into a seasoned veteran, having used his formidable talent, spiritually and organizationally, to initiate an entire range of services and programs for those with whom he worked closely, becoming their spiritual leader, personal counselor and friend.
As a chaplain, demonstrating his religious valor both in the big city of Saigon and three times a week “out there” in the field, the true hellhole of the war, Greenspan had become so legendary that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency prepared, for worldwide distribution, a two-page spread on him. It included striking pictures illustrating what he did regularly in the multifaceted programs he provided the Jewish troops. In that fascinating release, the explanatory text accompanying those images gave readers a visual treat: the activities of the Jewish chaplains in Vietnam. This was done powerfully with black-and-white images, without the magic of the Internet.
With Rosh Hashana near at hand, Greenspan was showered with requests for visitations by congressmen and news agencies. “I wanted the High Holy Days services covered well in the press, but I had to create guidelines. No pictures during the services, no non-kosher food brought in to add to the kosher diet, the meals I and my staff had prepared. We had a whole range of canned foods – many types of chicken, some meatballs, gefilte fish, and large number of oversized cans, overflowing with chicken soup and matza balls. I did not want the kosher menu ruined by treif [non-kosher food].”
Greenspan learned to blow the shofar as a teenager, and improved in his first few years at different military installations. The picture of him sounding the shofar in Saigon in 1966 was staged, as was mine in Fort Sill that same year.
Greenspan put it well: “The spiritual calling of the ram’s horn, in actuality, was not to be diminished by photographers snapping away, forcing us to do it again and again.” The reporters present on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were themselves moved by the powerful notes of the shofar, carrying several hundred soldiers back to their roots as they recalled their families back home.
“For me,” Greenspan emphasized, “blowing a shofar in Saigon can never be replicated and, of course, it never has been in my lifetime.”
What were some of the features of the tefillot almost a half a century ago? “First, looking out at a sea of soldiers’ faces, with bombs and shells exploding, offered a cacophony of sounds to the poignant Hebrew words and their translations being recited by the military congregation.”
Sitting at his table in Jerusalem, Greenspan looked longingly back in his mind at the Unetaneh Tokef prayer being chanted, the “who shall live and who shall die” lines bearing their own distinctiveness.
“Davening [praying] in war has its own dimensions, because arising from the words and melodies are spiritual longings hardly ever repeated.
“I tried to help men, coming from the quagmire of battle, climb out of that all-encompassing experience and for a few moments, be immersed in their Yiddishkeit again. I was God’s instrument in this process and I endeavored to fulfill my role with pathos and determination, as the shaliah tzibur [congregation’s messenger in prayer] of Am Yisrael [the Nation of Israel] in Saigon.”
Why do American rabbis enter the chaplaincy? Because there is meaning to this rabbinate which you hardly ever find in a civilian pulpit. “My career as a US Army chaplain provided my rabbinate with elements I could have never felt otherwise. My High Holy Days in Saigon can never be forgotten. God was there with me.
“I am thankful I served in the manner I did in 1966, as a chaplain wearing the uniform of a US Army officer.” 
This article is dedicated to my beloved wife, Rita, who recently celebrated her birthday.