Jewish War Veterans celebrate century of patriotism

On March 15, 1896, 78 Jewish veterans of the Union Army and Navy met at New York City's Lexington Opera House. Enraged at claims that Jews did not fight in the Civil War, they banded together and formed an advocacy group, the Hebrew Union Veterans.

Over the years, the group changed its name several times before assuming its current moniker, Jewish War Veterans. But the goals of the oldest active veterans organization in the country have remained the same: to support Jews in the armed forces and remind others that Jews are patriotic Americans.

"We think if nobody says anything about it, then people who are either ill-intentioned or have some other agenda can deny that Jewish citizens of the nation have taken part in duties of citizenship," said Peter Gleichenhaus, a retired army colonel and commander of the JWV's San Francisco post.

The record of the Jewish War Veterans, who have participated in American military operations from the Civil War to the Bosnian conflict, speaks for itself. The organization will celebrate its 100th anniversary this month with a number of local and national events.

These include a Shabbat service at 8 p.m. Friday, March 8 at Congregation Beth-Israel Judea in San Francisco, and a ceremony at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 17 at San Francisco's Veterans War Memorial. There, State Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), a JWV member who fought in the Korean War, will be the keynote speaker.

Nationwide, some 300,000 former servicemen and women belong to the JWV, with about 350 in the Bay Area. The organization's ranks have included veterans of all United States military engagements, from the Civil War through Bosnia in 1995. The majority of those still living, though, primarily served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War.

"Many of the members, particularly nationally, are in their 70s and 80s," Gleichenhaus said. "That's a problem for an organization."

In an attempt to ensure that its mission does not die out with its members, the JWV started a division in 1988 called "Descendants of the Jewish War Veterans" for relatives of veterans. "We want them to remember what took place and how we started," said Bert Sugarman, a member of the JWV's San Mateo post, which he formerly commanded.

Over the years, the Jewish War Veterans has supported Jewish servicemen and women in a variety of ways.

In 1927, the organization lobbied successfully for legislation requiring the American Battlefield Monument Commission to place Star of David markers on the graves of Jewish soldiers buried in war cemeteries in France. Before that, crosses marked the graves.

In 1977, JWV posts and auxiliaries contributed more than $275,000 to build a Jewish chapel at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

More recently, when Operation Desert Storm erupted in 1991, the Jewish War Veterans gathered 7,000 Bibles and sent them to the Jewish servicemen and women in the Persian Gulf. They also made sure those who wanted kosher meals got them.

However, the group doesn't merely serve Jewish interests. In alliance with other veterans groups, JWV petitions legislators on issues of concern to all veterans, regardless of their religious backgrounds. The group works for veterans' medical benefits, and aids homeless and hospitalized veterans. Similarly, Jewish veterans in the Bay Area visit local veterans' homes, where they organize games and activities for residents.

Often, the organization serves as a social network for its members, as well.

Through JWV, "I met people I wouldn't have met otherwise and we became close," Sugarman said. "We go out together. We play cards together. We play mah jong and what have you."

The closeness of the group became evident back in January 1992, when Al Cohen, then national commander, was in the Bay Area. When Cohen came to the Jewish Bulletin for an interview, seven of his fellow Jewish War Veterans — decorated with badges and veterans' caps of different colors — accompanied him.

Crowded into a small room, the veterans laughed, shared war stories, and snapped pictures of one another. One massaged the shoulders of a tired friend. If the Jewish War Veterans don't take care of each other, these former soldiers seemed to be saying, who will?