Published January 08, 2015
Vera Silberberg was almost 4 when her father, a military chaplain, was killed in a plane crash in Vietnam while flying to observe Hanukkah with Jewish soldiers.
She grew up reveling in stories about him: Morton Singer, the weight-lifting Orthodox rabbi who loved cars, rock 'n' roll and his faith.
He was serious in his commitment to help American soldiers worship in wartime. Yet his name — and those of 12 other Jewish clergymen — is absent from monuments at Arlington National Cemetery that honor more than 240 other fallen military chaplains.
A new congressional effort backed by Jewish groups and survivors of the chaplains aims to change that.
"From his daughter's perspective, I think it would have been important for him — not really for his own namesake but so everyone who has perished and passed away, they should all have their names equally there," said Silberberg, a dentist who lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
There are already three monuments at Arlington for chaplains: one for those killed in World War I and one each for Roman Catholic and Protestant chaplains who died in various 20th century conflicts, including Korea and Vietnam. The three sit side-by-side in an area known as Chaplains Hill, not far from President John F. Kennedy's burial site. They were erected and dedicated by different groups of benefactors, so no one blames Arlington for the absence of a Jewish monument.
A joint resolution sponsored by Rep. Anthony Weiner and Sen. Charles Schumer, both New York Democrats, calls for a new plaque, similar in size and style to the existing three that would honor the late Jewish chaplains.
The 13 died between 1943 and 1974, though not all were killed in overseas combat.
They include Rabbi Alexander Goode, one of four chaplains who died aboard the USAT Dorchester, a troop ship torpedoed by a German U-boat as it carried hundreds of American soldiers across the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in 1943. The chaplains, as the story goes, gave up their life preservers and gloves to the shivering soldiers and offered comforting hymns even as the ship went down. More than 600 died. The names of the three other chaplains are all memorialized at Arlington.
Then there's Irving Tepper, who died in action in France in 1944 after seeing combat in Tunisia, Morocco and Sicily; Louis Werfel, known as the "Flying Rabbi," who died in a plane crash in North Africa; and Herman Rosen and his son, Solomon, who died in a drowning accident and air disaster, respectively, five years apart.
Ken Kraetzer, a bank marketing consultant and son of a World War II Army officer, noticed the lack of a monument for Jewish chaplains while researching the stories of late chaplains from his alma mater, Providence College. Though not Jewish himself, Kraetzer said he was startled by the apparent oversight. He alerted the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America and the Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council, which has helped lead the effort.
"I don't consider it a Jewish cause, per se. I consider it an honor the veterans cause. This is a chance to honor chaplains, past and present," Kraetzer said. "This group just happens to be Jewish."
Cemetery officials told the organizers they could move forward with a monument provided they raised the money themselves and could produce a complete and accurate list of the dead Jewish chaplains. They did that by cross-checking research from the Jewish Historical Society with records from the chaplain corps of each branch of service.
Sol Moglen, who conceived the idea for a Sept. 11 memorial in Brooklyn and helped develop plans for the Arlington monument, helped lead fundraising. Organizers say they have raised about $50,000 — more than enough, they say, to cover the costs of the work.
The monument would stand about 7 feet tall, with a bronze plaque mounted on a granite slab listing the 13 names as well as a Jewish proverb — "I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders" — and an inscription with the Star of David. There would be space at the bottom for future chaplains if needed.
The plans hit a hurdle after a leadership change at Arlington, when organizers said they learned for the first time that a new monument at the cemetery would require a resolution from Congress.
The resolution has widespread bipartisan support, officials say, but getting it through Congress has been arduous.
"For the last decade or so, there's been a feeling by Congress that we shouldn't just put up a memorial to everything that there is, that there should be some deliberations and thought, so there have been hurdles that we've had to jump over generally speaking," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, which has lobbied Congress.
Still, Weiner hopes to get the resolution on the floor sometime next month.
"I would anticipate that this would have no opposition. We're not costing the taxpayers any money," he said.
Rabbi Harold Robinson, the director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council and one of the leaders of the effort, said America's corps of chaplains is unique among nations because of its diversity — a distinction, the retired Navy official said, has not been properly recognized at the country's resting place for the military.
"This is a miracle of American democracy and that's not a miracle that one learns about by going to Arlington National Cemetery," Robinson said.
Arlington National Cemetery: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/
JWB Jewish Chaplains Council: http://www.jcca.org/jwb/
American Jewish Historical Society: http://www.ajhs.org/
Jewish Federations of North America: http://www.jewishfederations.org/
(This version CORRECTS Corrects the order of deaths for Solomon and Herman Rosen. With AP Photos.)