November 10, 2010
Valley Jewish war vets fight an old enemy on the home front: Invisibility
Listen to interviews with Jewish War Veterans:
They fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. They served in the United States Army, Navy and the Army Air Corps — the precursor to the Air Force. A few flew through anti-aircraft fire over Nazi Germany, another marched over mountains during the coldest winter of the Korean War. One even watched the Bay of Pigs Invasion from the deck of a disguised aircraft carrier floating “spitting distance” from the shores of Cuba.
Yet today, the more than 400 members of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA (JWV) Post 603 in the San Fernando Valley are engaged in a different campaign: They are battling the widely held perception that American Jews do not and did not serve in this country’s armed forces.
“There’s an old false fable out there that Jews never fought in our wars,” said Seymour Bloom of Van Nuys, 81, a Korean War veteran and member of Post 603. “And I can stand up tall and tell ’em, ‘You’re full of s—-. We were there, too.’ ”
The roots of this fable go at least as far back as 1898, when Mark Twain wrote that Jews had “an unpatriotic disinclination to stand by the flag as a soldier.” The Hebrew Union Veterans Association, which would become JWV, had been founded in 1896 by a group of Jewish Civil War veterans in the hope of refuting exactly this type of claim. (Twain issued an apology after consulting data from the War Department that showed Jews had served in disproportionately high numbers on both sides during the Civil War.)
Still, the idea that Jews today are underrepresented in the American armed forces is alive and well. JWV says that Jews serve at a rate proportionate to the general population, but cannot provide concrete evidence, for two reasons: “One, the Pentagon does not keep any records by religion,” JWV National Program Coordinator Cheryl Waldman said. “And two, a lot of the Jews who are serving, especially since they are serving in Islamic countries, don’t present themselves as Jews.”
The veterans in the Valley are doing their part to disabuse people of the notion that Jews don’t serve. In the run-up to Veterans Day (Nov. 11), Post 603 Cmdr. Paul Cohen and Senior Vice Cmdr. Allan Hoffman spent many of their weekdays at a table in Brent’s Deli in Northridge selling paper poppies, the red flowers worn around the world to honor veterans, in an effort to raise money and awareness. And on Veterans Day itself, members from Post 603 plan to participate in the annual San Fernando Valley Veterans Day Parade, as they do every year.
The average age of a JWV Post 603 member is about 75 or 78, according to Hoffman, who is 70, and the veterans are trying to reach out to their younger counterparts. At a board meeting in October, Julian Cohen, 83, who served in the Navy during World War II, moved that JWV Post 603 train its members to deal with calls from veterans considering suicide. He also suggested they develop an online presence. (Right now, the post’s monthly newsletter is sent through the mail.)
The veterans of JWV Post 603 know that getting young men — and the returning vets are mostly men — to join a group whose board meets every other Tuesday for three hours in the middle of the day is going to be a challenge. “Young kid coming out of the service today,” Bloom said, “24 years old, what the hell does he want to go to a meeting with a bunch of old kackers talking about ancient history? They’re looking for girls; they want to get some action going in their life.
“I mean really,” Bloom added, “they’re going to sit down and listen to war stories from World War II and Korea? They had enough of war.”
Bloom and the other members of Post 603 aren’t just sitting around swapping stories, though. They spend a good chunk of their time helping veterans who are less well-off than they are.
“JWV Post 603 is one of the most active and attentive Veterans Service Organizations in the VA Greater Los Angeles area,” Marianne Davis, chief of voluntary services at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, said in an e-mail. Members of the Post, Davis said, donate clothes to the VA and help distribute them to homeless vets. They work with people in the VA’s nursing home, helping with crafts classes and weekly bingo games. Bloom even runs a photography class for patients.
“Their support and compassion has helped provide services and programs our veterans truly appreciate,” Davis said.