Memorial Day and a United Jewish People

by Mel Scult

It is a very rare occasion when Jews all come together as one people. We talk about it much but it rarely happens. We are all too often painfully divided.

In synagogue this past Memorial Day Shabbat, I experienced the joy of seeing us Jews as one united people, or at least American Jews coming together despite their denominational separateness.

At the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City that day, a rabbinic representative of the Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council came to speak. There he was, a rabbi in his dress white uniform of the United States Navy, addressing the congregation from the bimah. “So many approach me and wonder if I am in the Israeli armed forces,” he said at one point. He went on to talk about the 10,000 Jews now serving in the military and our loyalty to America and its ideals.

At one point the Navy chaplain proudly exclaimed, “I determine who is a rabbi and who not.” He meant this as a compliment, because then he pointed to Assistant Rabbi Steven Rein, who had served in the Air Force and was as a matter of fact wearing his uniform on the pulpit, and proclaimed, “ You are a chaplain.” (It happens that Rabbi Rein already serves as chaplain in the reserves, but no matter.)

Perhaps most moving was the prayer book. The first printing of 11,000 copies of the new Armed Forces Siddur was being celebrated this Memorial Day at a number of synagogues in the New York metropolitan area. Park Avenue Synagogue had arranged for the new Siddur to be used for the Shabbat service. The siddur was distributed to all the members of the congregation. We prayed from the same books that our Jewish soldiers would pray from. After the service these siddurim would be shipped off to our Jewish men and women in Afghanistan so they could use them in their davenning.

Upon looking through the prayer book, I noticed that it was endorsed by all the streams, from the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform). What was more startling was that, when I looked into the Amidah prayer, it had an alternate version including the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah), indicating in the text that this version of the Amidah is used by the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements and some Conservative congregations. This siddur also offered a liberal alternative in the opening morning blessings where the tradition has the man being thankful for not being a woman. In this prayer book all those praying, if they so desired, could say thanks for being created in God’s image. So without saying as much, the Orthodox and the more traditional in a sense endorsed the principle of choice in the language of prayer. The truth of the matter is that choice is of the essence when it comes to prayer. The words of prayer should be our words; we should mean what we say when we pray, whether literally or metaphorically.

And so the Armed Forces Siddur represents a small step toward the unity of the Jewish people. It is ironic that it is tied to the matter of armed conflict. Perhaps when the messiah comes, we shall have become one people, all praying together but in our separate ways. In any case, a Hasidic story has it that when our prayers get to heaven, God rearranges the letters according to God’s will.

This ideal of “all together” yet retaining our separate ways is perfectly in line with Kaplan’s ideology and is therefore one of the goals of the Kaplan Center.

A long journey always begins with the first step.