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The Invisible Soldiers

After Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s story on Jews in the U.S. military was published last week, a reader asked: “How can synagogues here in the U.S. lend support to our Jewish American soldiers?”

First, by acknowledging their existence.

In many Jewish communities, it’s easier to name an American serving in the Israel Defense Forces than in our own military. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t ignite the same intense reaction among Jews as did the fighting in World War II, when the Nazis’ obsession with extermination prompted a widespread desire to defend and a personal connection to the threat, whether one’s family was directly subject to the Holocaust, or not. And of course, then and for decades later, there was a military draft. Avoiding service was generally not an option.

Now the volunteer armed forces are filled mostly with Protestants from middle America. Officially, just 4,677 of the 1.47 million currently in the active military identify themselves as Jewish. Experts say that the true number is more than twice that amount — because so many Jews don’t bother to state their religious preference, out of personal predilection, a desire to fit in, or a calculated decision to hide their religion in theaters of war where it could be an issue.

Still, 39 Jews have died in uniform since the “war on terror” began on September 11, 2001. Their names are listed on the Web site of Jews in Green, which aims to be an online resource for Jews in the military. They are names you’d recognize, names like David Bernstein, who was a 1st lieutenant in the Army from Pennsylvania; Mark Engel, a lance corporal in the Marines from Colorado; Jonathan Yelner, a senior airman from California. And some women, including Elizabeth Jacobson, airman first class, Florida.

Familiar names. But what of their stories? When a young American-born soldier named Michael Levin was killed fighting for Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War, he was called a hero, his story recalled again and again, and still today he is memorialized as a symbol of devotion. Are the names of the 39 remembered so universally?

“We need people to connect emotionally, viscerally,” says Admiral Harold Robinson, a Reform rabbi and director of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council.

The disconnect is compounded by what Robinson and others see as a dramatic need for more rabbis to serve in the armed forces. Only 22 chaplains are Jewish, charged with ministering to an isolated, eclectic and far-flung congregation. When the military draft was operative, rabbinical schools regularly required a portion of their graduating classes to go on active duty; such entreaties now seem out of step with an American Jewish culture focused on threats to Israel rather than needs closer to home.

“Jews in the military are underserved, have largely been ignored by the American Jewish community, and these amazing young men and women need rabbis,” Irving Elson, a Navy captain and chaplain, told the Forward.

Added Robinson: “People call to ask about sending packages for the holidays. That’s not the problem. The problem is creating a Jewish community in Baghram, and you can only do that if you have a rabbi there.”

An even greater problem is that military sacrifice in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere is not equally shared by all Americans. While the representation of disadvantaged minority groups in the armed forces has decreased in the last decade, and the educational level of new recruits has increased, those who serve are not reflective of the nation as a whole when it comes to geography, race and class. In this sense, the Jewish disconnect is not unusual. After all, only a handful of members of Congress have sons or daughters on active duty.

Unfortunately, this nation missed the ripe opportunity to initiate compulsory military and community service in the days after September 11, and while the quality of the volunteer military is to be praised, the reliance only on a small sector of the population for our defense has other costs. We all pay dearly, none more than the families of the 39, and their fallen comrades, too often largely unknown.

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