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World War II: Religious Unity in War

Today as the various denominations of American Jewry emphasize their doctrinal differences, it is useful to recall the wartime unifying actions of the Committee on Army and Navy Religious Activities (CANRA) of the Jewish Welfare Board.

When World War II began, there were only a handful of chaplains in the Armed Services. With the addition of tens of thousands of American Jewish soldiers to the ranks, the need for Jewish chaplains became acute. CANRA, representing the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, I upon to recruit, train, supply and supervise a new generation of Jewish chaplains.

CANRA put out a call to Jewish congregations to permit rabbis to volunteer for service without losing their pulpits or salaries. Many congregations responded with enthusiasm, and more than 1,000 rabbis applied to CANRA for certification as chaplains. After rigorous interviews, CANRA recommended 311 of the volunteers to the military.

Services overseas usually placed rabbis under great stress. Since Jewish soldiers were scattered throughout the military, most chaplains served several units. Often, they were the only Jewish clergymen for miles around - and in the Pacific, islands around. Many chaplains worked for months at a time without a day off. Some developed illness caused by stress and fatigue.

A dilemma CANRA addressed was how to deal with halachic observance and respect the minhag (customs) of soldiers of differing denominations. CANRA required that each candidate for a chaplaincy agree to support the observance of all the soldiers he served, not just those of his own branch of Judaism. The new chaplains received common training at a school that CANRA operated, and CANRA created an official military prayer book that was distributed to all chaplains and served as the siddur from which all Jewish military services were conducted. Under the diplomatic guidance of David de Sola Pool of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, CANRA managed to identify the core beliefs that bind Jews, and to use them to meet the spiritual needs of Jewish G.I.'s, regardless of their upbringing.

The chaos of combat challenges those who wish to observe the letter of Jewish law: keeping kashruth at a remote outpost; leaving one's buddies to observe shivah; celebrating Shabbat in a foxhole under fire. Because they did not want Jews to be singled out for special treatment, CANRA insisted that Jewish soldiers not be segregated into separate kosher dining rooms. They arranged for PX's to order canned kosher meats from certified suppliers, so soldiers could eat alongside non-Jews. Chaplains were discouraged from asking that Jewish combat soldiers receive days off for mouming or holy days. CANRA decided that, with so much at stake for world Jewry, military emergency superceded the requirements of halachah.

CANRA"s Responsa Committee, composed of Rabbis Solomon Freehof, Leo Jung and Milton Steinberg, interpreted halachic law so that traditional Jewish requirements could be reconciled with the exigencies of war. The CANRA archives, which reside at the American Jewish Historical Society, preserve responsa that depict the conflicts faced by Jewish chaplains as they buried those who died in combat:

PROBLEM: A chaplain says that he has always [stood] at the foot of the grave during the ceremony and... army regulations seem to require that the chaplain stand at the head of the grave.

DECISION: [This] is a matter not of law but of Minhag (custom). There is no objection in Jewish law to the chaplain conforming to army practice and standing at the head of the grave.

PROBLEM: The military custom is to have the man’s service cap in his hand rather than on his head. Should the chaplain request that the cap be placed upon the head of the soldier who is to be buried?

DECISION: If the deceased was known to the chaplain as an observing Orthodox Jew or if the chaplain knows that the family of the deceased would prefer it so, he may ask that the cap be placed upon the head of the deceased.

PROBLEM: Is burial on the Sabbath ever permissible? Is it permissible during the War Emergency period?

DECISION: [Jewish] law is clear that burial on the Sabbath is forbidden. ... Yet even in civilian life in case of epidemic, if the government orders the immediate burial of someone who dies on Friday evening, then the burial must take place. In wartime, a military command sets aside the laws of the Sabbath. However, the chaplain should consult the officer in charge as to whether the burial may not be postponed to another day when burial is permitted according to Jewish practice.

As Jewish soldiers stood ready to pay the ultimate price for freedom, CANRA found the fundamentals that unite us all as Jews and Americans.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society