St. Louis Jewish Light: Local News - Honoring Jewish veterans

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Honoring Jewish veterans

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Posted: Thursday, June 3, 2010 9:12 am

A small American flag planted. A crisp salute given. A brief sentence of thanks said. Then it's on to the next headstone.

For a couple of dozen area Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on White Road, it's routine that became second nature for a few hours last weekend.

"It makes us think about what they did and how they were able to fight," said Dan Silver, a 16-year-old United Hebrew congregant who had two grandfathers fight in World War II. "It makes me proud that we're able to help the community by doing this today."

Dan was among about 275 scouts who helped in Sunday's effort to plant more than 5,000 flags on graves in nine area Jewish cemeteries in honor of Memorial Day. The annual campaign, which includes breakfast and a closing memorial service, saw a significant increase in participation this year.

Earl R. Binder, chairman of the Jewish Relationships Committee of the Scout's Greater St. Louis Area Council, said that organizers worked hard to boost publicity this time around. Last year's turnout included more than 200 scouts and their leaders.

"Many of the scouts here are not Jewish," said Binder, who helps coordinate the event, which features participants arriving from as far away as Webster Groves and St. Charles. "We open this up to anyone who likes to come."

The Jewish War Veterans

The flag planting is one of the more visible projects organized each year by the Jewish War Veterans but it's hardly the only one. Divided into Posts 346 and 644, the group undertakes a variety of initiatives to honor veterans of the armed forces. Over the past couple of years JWV members have donated two 12-passenger vans to the Veterans Administration, bought a popcorn machine for Jefferson Barracks and built a 24-foot wheelchair ramp for a Creve Coeur resident. They also make visits monthly to the Missouri Veterans Home in North County and the Cedars at the JCA and quarterly to Jefferson Barracks bringing bingo and doughnuts.

"It's very rewarding," said Monroe Ginsburg, past commander of Post 644. "The veterans really look forward to that. It shows our appreciation for what they've done for our country."

The wheelchair ramp project is also indicative of the kind of work JWV does. Ralph Shower, adjutant of Post 346 and a past department commander for Missouri, said the JWV has taken on about 25 similar efforts to assist individual veterans over the past decade.

"When there's a problem and somebody doesn't have an answer for it, they usually come to us," he said.

Some of those problems involve research. The JWV often works to discover the names of those who have served and verify their accomplishments so they can be recognized. Those who have officially documented acts of valor in the face of the enemy earn a place on the growing "Wall of Honor" in the lobby at the Jewish Federation's Kopolow Building. The wall sits near another JWV project, a room filled with memorabilia.

"We don't really call it a museum," said Jack Lite, archivist of the institution. "It's a memorial because the room was dedicated to the memory of those who served and gave their lives. That was the original intent."

The room contains a wide variety of medals, insignias and prayer books dating back through the Civil War. In fact, it received so many materials, a number of items were transferred to the national organization, Lite said.

Research is also a specialty of Ben Fliesher, a member of Post 346. The 84 year old, who served in the South Atlantic's Air Transport Command, has been locating gravesites of veterans for years. It's a job he takes pride in, though not always an easy one. The decedents often don't have living relatives. In some instances, they've even changed their names. But Fliesher remains passionate about the work for the same reason he got into it.

"People often didn't believe that Jews fought in the wars," said Fliesher, who had three uncles serve in WWI. "I started doing research and found over 200 veterans of the Spanish-American War and WWI that hadn't been recognized on Memorial Day. I wanted people to know that we did fight."

That was part of the rationale for the organization's founding in the first place - combating anti-Semitic myths that Jews had avoided service. But as bigotry has faded and the need for proof of Jewish patriotism has waned, the JWV is innovating to fill new roles. It's been a task spurred by declining membership as the WWII generation's numbers inevitably dwindle.

"We're lucky to get 10 or 12 men at a meeting - maybe less than that sometimes," said Louis Deutch, 93, who fought the Japanese on the Alaskan island of Attu. "There are veterans out there who have never joined and we could use more membership."

The job of finding more members is one JWV leadership is working on. Shower recalls the early days of the group when it had about more than 450 participants. Today, that number is closer to 100 between the two posts, said David Kassander, commander of Post 644.

"Some of it is just the nature of the military right now," said Kassander, a resident of Creve Coeur. "During WWII, there were a lot of conscripts and you had the draft so everyone served. After that, the military shrunk because of technology and different types of wars. The number of Jews in the military, just by nature, went down significantly so there is a natural shrinkage in the organization that we have to deal with."

Kassander doesn't expect the group to alter its focus as a service organization but says it is working more closely with its national organization and trying to do increased promotions work to bring in new people. Joe Iken, a past department commander and member of 644, said the effort seems to be bearing some fruit. He feels JWV is starting to revive by attracting more Vietnam and Korea-era veterans. Still, the youngest veterans remain elusive. Iken said it may just be a matter of time.

"They don't seem to want to join organizations," he said. "Maybe in a few years, they'll come around to joining our group as they get older and more settled."

Shower said he feels JWV may work to play a role as a bridge-builder in the community, perhaps doing more interfaith or intercultural work.

"In the earlier period of our existence, we served as a reminder to the public that we are patriotic," he said. "Today, we have to think about developing the second and third generation."

 

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