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70 Years after World War II Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron 

July 3, 2015

Visiting in Central Europe last month, it was impossible not to see the impact of World War II on each of the Jewish communities that we visited. The years 1939-1945 were a tragic watershed in these communities that were hundreds, even a thousand years old. Abandoned synagogues, graveyards that end abruptly in the 1940’s, mezuzah spots on the doorposts of homes now without Jewish inhabitants, and the shimmer of a Jewish name under a second coat of paint on a sign on a business in a town square- in some places that is all that remains.

The impact of World War II on American Jewry is very different, and, though not seen as vividly, is still significant. Perhaps for that reason the theme of national  American Jewish Heritage Month this past spring, May 2015, the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe, was “the special significance of fighting in World War II for Jewish servicemen” ( and women).

On the eve of World War II, the American Jewish community was very proud of its achievements in America--after all under FDR more Jews had entered public life than ever before. Jews were also visible in other areas of achievement in the arts, science and even sports.  But there was also significant and substantial anti-Semitic hostility and discrimination.

The 1930’s had been marked by the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin and the continued exclusion of Jews from certain industries, companies and neighborhoods. Jews had their own law firms, country clubs and hospitals- incidentally these hospitals were not for the Jewish patients, but to provide a place where Jewish doctors could practice medicine. A 1938 Gallup poll found that 50% of Americans had a low opinion of Jews. A Gallup Poll taken 2 weeks after Kristallnacht, which was covered in detail in the U.S. papers, still found that only 21.1% of Americans thought that the government should allow more Jews to immigrate to America.

Yet between the years 1939-1945 some very significant things happened that would have a significant impact on American Jewish life.  Before World War II, most Americans, particularly those who didn’t live in big cities, had never met a Jew. Service in the armed forces changed that for many people. 550, 000 Jews served in the armed forces, enough so that your odds of meeting a Jew as a young man from a rural town in the South, increased significantly. Jews served with honor- 26,000, almost 1/20, receiving a Medal of Honor or Purple Heart. In addition 60% of all Jewish physicians under 45 served in the armed forces, making the chance of interacting with a Jewish physician disproportionate to the Jewish percentage in the population.

These interactions with Jews in the military, whether the serviceman next to you, the officer to whom you reported, or your physician in combat or on your base, challenged the anti-Semitic ideas that some brought with them from home.

Military service also opened up the eyes of young Jewish soldiers, who may never have left New York City or Philadelphia or Chicago, and were now serving on bases in Alabama, Texas or California.

Finally, Jews became part of the public imagination in a new way. One example is  in the veneration of the four chaplains who went down with the ship the Dorchester in February of 1943. Rabbi Alexander Goode, Father John Washington, A Catholic Priest, Rev Clark Polling, A Dutch Reformed Minister, and Rev George Fox, a Methodist, each removed his own life jacket and gave them to others. They helped men into lifeboats and then remained on the ship as it went down, linked arm in arm and sharing prayers together. Their sacrifice received significant attention both during the war and in the years afterwards. It was covered in newspapers and newsreels, books and full length films.

In memory of these four men, the Immortal Chaplains Foundation was founded, with an annual event honoring those “who risked all to protect others of a different faith or ethnic origin”. Some credit this powerful image of the 4 chaplains with creating the mental landscape which would emerge in the 1950’s of America as Protestant, Catholic and Jew.

By the end of the war, in 1945, things had really changed in America. The American Jewish community had become the largest, richest and politically most significant Jewish community in the world. It was ready to take on its role in supporting smaller communities and particularly the soon to be born state of Israel. By 1944 the War Refuge Board had agreed to save 200,000 Jews and following the war the United States signed a U.N. Agreement not to return refugees against their will to their countries of origin if they would experience persecution.

Following World War II and the return of those serving overseas, there was also tremendous movement as Jews not only joined the general exodus to the suburbs, but also began an internal migration to the south and west that has continued into our own time.

It began with Florida and California, particularly Miami and Los Angeles, but spread throughout the sun-belt and the west, a process that continues still in our own decade. We also saw Jewish organizations turning their focus to supporting Israel and to political liberalism which was tied to the fight against anti-Semitism.

By the end of the war, Anti-Semitism was associated with Fascism and so it declined significantly in the post war years. “Gentleman’s Agreement”, the movie starring Gregory Peck as a journalist who pretends to be Jewish, won best picture in 1947, as anti-Semitism became less socially acceptable. Eventually this would lead to an end to the university quotas, to Jewish performers being more willing to publically identify with their religious roots, and to businesses and banks being more willing to hire Jews. Ultimately it would take the Fair Housing Act of the 1960’s to open up restricted neighborhoods to Jews, and several significant court cases to make non-Jewish country clubs more welcoming.

Still as one historian put it, “ the willingness to die for American ideals on the battlefield segues naturally into a struggle to live out those ideas fully. “

And so on this 4th of July weekend, as we celebrate 70 years since the conclusion of World War II, we pray that we might continue that noble struggle that the ideas and ideals of our country be brought fully into practice.

 

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