At the 100th Annual Veterans Day Parade on Monday, spectators gathered along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to commemorate the bravery of American veterans, past and present. In attendance were servicemen and women from World War II through the Afghanistan War, as well as active duty and reserve troops.
Among these countless American heroes were a few of our own. Jewish-American vets have contributed so much, but their stories are not often heard.
Here are just a few of those stories.
- Corporal, 34th Infantry, 8th Division, Army, World War II
- Served in the CBI Theater [China, Burma, India], 1941-1945
- Born on the Lower East Side; lived in Brooklyn and the Bronx; currently lives in San Diego
- At 100 years old, Mr. Walton is one of America’s oldest living Jewish veterans.
- In his younger days, Mr. Walton once passed up the chance to meet a Civil War veteran – and ended up regretting that decision for the rest of his life. Realizing the importance of sharing his own story before it was too late, he recently launched his “No Regrets Tour” (@NoRegretsTour on Instagram). Mr. Walton travels across the U.S. to give Americans the chance to hear his firsthand account of World War II combat before it’s too late—before we lose the last of this vanishing generation. Thus far, Mr. Walton has met with the governors of 24 states and hopes to reach the remaining 26 states soon.
- He enlisted for one reason alone: “To fight Hitler!”
- Aerologist Second Class (Aerographer’s Mate), Navy, World War II
- Stationed at the Naval Communications Annex in Washington, DC; served from 1943 through 1945
- 97 years old; from Wichita, Kansas; currently lives in Manhattan
- Ms. Posner comes from a family of Jewish veterans: Her father served in World War I, and her younger brother served in the Korean War.
- At age 20, the minimum age for naval service, she left the University of Wichita (now Wichita State University), where she was majoring in math and statistics, to enlist.
- Ms. Posner served as a weather observer and code breaker for the Bureau of Intelligence in Washington, cracking Japanese weather codes to locate enemy planes—a role that proved crucial in the Allied Forces’ victory. “We broke the code in July 1945, and once we did, the war was over in a month.”
- Ms. Posner and her fellow female World War II veterans are known as WAVEs, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, since women were largely denied from serving in the Armed Forces until 1948.
- Ms. Posner met plenty of Jewish GIs during her service. “I had two WAVE friends who were Jewish. We were a lot of [Jewish service people]. I always found a synagogue to go to.” She recalled attending “a huge Seder for Jewish soldiers and sailors, a room full of a couple of hundred people” during her service. “It kind of made it feel like home.”
- Reflecting on how her Judaism impacted her military service, Ms. Posner explained, “We knew what was going on in Europe [the persecution and expulsion of the Jews, and later the Holocaust]. Because of that situation, we felt that we had to do more than our share [in the war effort]."
- Yeoman Second Class, Navy, World War II
- Served in the Pacific Theater from 1944 to 1946, at the Battle of Okinawa and other campaigns
- Mr. Grabiner has received multiple decorations for his service and was recently inducted into the New York State Senate’s Veterans Hall of Fame. He has devoted himself to educating students about the sacrifices of the U.S. servicemen in World War II, lecturing in schools and universities in Queens and across the U.S.
- 94 years old; born on the Lower East Side; grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn; currently lives in Flushing
- Military life took some adjusting for a then-19-year-old Jewish boy from Brooklyn: “Coming from an Orthodox kosher home, Navy boot camp was quite a shock. On my first day, I arrived at the mess hall to a breakfast of a bologna sandwich on white bread with a glass of milk. That was my indoctrination: Everything I’d known up to that point went out the window.”
- Despite having to sacrifice various mitzvos during his service, Mr. Grabiner feels blessed that he never had to make the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ and that he was able to experience becoming a husband, a father, and a grandfather, and living into his 90s. He was deeply affected witnessing the burial-at-sea of a number of young comrades, wrapped in American flags, after a suicide bombing in the Battle of Okinawa.
- Corporal attached to 8th Army; Korean War; enlisted in 1951 and served 22 months
- For his service, Mr. Toback earned three bronze stars and Korean presidential citations. He has held leadership positions in the United Council of War Veterans and Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A.
- 89 years old; born and raised in Washington Heights; currently lives in Manhattan
- While deployed in Korea, Mr. Toback led religious services for his fellow Jewish troops. He recalled a Rosh HaShanah service “500-strong” attended by “Jewish soldiers from all over Korea.”
- In combat, he said, Jews and non-Jews came together for the cause. “We didn’t serve as Jews; we served as Americans. And it was my honor to serve.”
- Mr. Toback recalled a light-hearted incident involving an airmailed challah:
“One day, I received a package from home, and inside the box was a chally from a famous New York baker. This was the best chally you could buy in New York, but as it had been in transit for two weeks, it had started to get moldy and wasn’t fit to use for Friday night services.
“My first thought was to wonder why my father would send this great chally all the way from New York; he should’ve known that it wouldn’t survive the journey. But I knew my father wasn’t that stupid.
“Suddenly I realized what was going on. I tore open the challah; inside it was a bottle of Chivas Regal.
“Needless to say, I was very popular that Shabbos, and my father was the hero of the base camp.”
Dr. Norman Kahan
- Major, 9th Division Medical Battalion Company D, U.S. Army Medical Corp, Vietnam War
- Dr. Kahan served on a Navy ship, the U.S.S. Nueces, with the Mobile Riverine Force. His service lasted for a total of six years: two years in active combat and four years in the Reserves.
- 77 years old; grew up in Brooklyn; lives in Westchester
- Dr. Kahan feels a strong connection to the men he served with, but painful memories kept him away from the parade until this year. “There’s a special bond among those who’ve served [in Vietnam], a similar pain, just as there are among Iraq War vets and among Korean War vets. Being here is also tinged with certain feelings of sadness and memories that come back to one in a situation like this. It’s not all fun and joy.”
- As an Orthodox Jew, Dr. Kahan values Shabbos and kashrus; but wartime, he says, requires sacrifice. “You’re in a war zone; it’s 24/7. I was not able to keep Shabbos simply because you just couldn’t do it. There were other things you had to take care of and that was that.”
- Dr. Kahan was proud to make these sacrifices, and others, for a country that he feels has given him so much. “I was serving my country, doing what I felt I had to do. America has been a wonderful country to the Jews and we have to recognize that. We owe a debt of gratitude to America.”
- Specialist 4th Class, D-Troop, 17th Armored Cavalry, 199th Light Infantry Brigade, Vietnam War
- Mr. Friedman was decorated with a Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) and two Purple Hearts; he served from 1967 to 1969
- 71 years old; grew up in Brooklyn; currently lives in Gravesend
- Mr. Friedman serves as president of his chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America and is active on a number of veterans’ advocacy causes.
- “There were a few of us [Jewish guys], three in my unit, but all of us – Jews and non-Jews alike – we were all Americans across the board, same values. The question is what you do with those values.”
- Though not particularly religious, Mr. Friedman recalled a memorable Seder for “Jewish personnel” at base camp in Long Bend:
“The chopper takes you to the Seder and the chopper takes you back after. I get choppered in. I was really funky, because we wore the same fatigues ‘til they rotted off us; I had my weapon with me, I had my CIB [Combat Infantryman Badge] on, and my boonie hat on.
“I walk into this big huge mess hall where they’re having the Seders, all the Jewish personnel in Vietnam practically were there.
“This airborne colonel comes up to me, looking very fine in his pressed fatigues and shiny boots and lots of combat insignia—a CIB, a ranger patch. He looks at my CIB and says, ‘What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing with one of those?!’”
The colonel’s joke was spot-on, according to Mr. Friedman. “[The Seder] was surreal. I was just spaced out that there were that many Jews in that part of Vietnam…[and] very pleasantly surprised that there were so many of us.”
There may have been added incentives for Jewish soldiers to observe the holidays while deployed in Vietnam. “I guess any time you can get pulled out of the field,” he quipped, “it’s always one day less of being shot at. Plus, you got a good meal out of it.”
- Sergeant, E5 9th Infantry Division, Army, Vietnam War
- Mr. Neulander was decorated with a Purple Heart; served six years, including three years active duty, with tours in Vietnam, Germany, and Hawaii, and three years reserve duty
- 72 years old; grew up in Brooklyn; Currently lives in Cliffside Park
- “I enlisted after my second year at Brooklyn College. Being Jewish and in college in 1967, the last thing you did was to enlist in the army.”
- Though he describes himself as non-religious, Mr. Neulander recalled attending a Passover service in Saigon in 1969 with 60 or 70 other soldiers. “We were happy to get out of duty.”
- Since coming home, though, Mr. Neulander has found his experience as a Jewish Vietnam veteran to be unique—and, at times, isolating. “In Vietnam, there were very few Jews. I never met other Jewish veterans of Vietnam; we are a bit of an anomaly… and as a disabled Jewish Vietnam vet, I’m even more of an anomaly.”
- Still, he was heartened by the turnout at the parade and feels encouraged that Americans are finally starting to realize the debt they owe our servicemen and women: “I’ve been coming to this parade for 30 years. Thirty years ago, there were no spectators here and the parade was over in 40 minutes. Today, just look at the crowd. It’s so nice to see this outpouring of respect for the troops.”
Judge David Everett
- Colonel, Army Reserve; served for over 30 years in the Reserve including three Combat Zone Deployments during the Persian Gulf War (1991), the Iraq War (2005 and 2006), and the Afghanistan War (2009).
- 66 years old; grew up in Brooklyn; lives in Westchester
- “It’s much appreciated that people want to honor veterans for their service.”
- Judge Everett hopes that Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike –realize the scope of Jewish contributions to American military efforts. “There are many Jews serving in the Armed Forces, past and present, and many have made the ultimate sacrifice.” At the parade, Judge Everett wore a bracelet commemorating a Jewish servicewoman killed in action while serving in Afghanistan.
- Judaism has played a role in Judge Everett’s patriotism. “My family and I owe a great debt of gratitude to this country for welcoming my grandparents [from Europe] and providing us with security and freedom.”
- Judge Everett and his comrades enjoyed some unique holidays while serving in combat zones: Passover in the Persian Gulf in April 1991; Pesach in Afghanistan in 2009 at the U.S. Embassy; and Chanukah at Saddam Hussein’s palace (the Republican Palace) in Baghdad in 2005. “Saddam would be ticked-off if he knew we were spinning the dreidel in there.”
- When asked about the greater risks faced by Jewish Americans in anti-Semitic combat zones like Afghanistan, he replied, “Let’s put it this way: Getting captured was not an option.”
- U.S. Auxiliary Coast Guard and NYPD patrol officer in Brooklyn South Precinct
- 40 years old; originally from Sheepshead Bay; lives in Staten Island
- Mr. Mammon made news for his bravery in 2015, when he saved a boy from drowning while on vacation in Bal Harbor, Florida.
- “We all come from the same tribe – the tribe of Moses. We come here to do good because we’ve been taught by Avraham and all our fathers to do good, to do mitzvahs. America did good for us, so we want to do good for others and be part of a culture of doing good.”
Chaplain Captain Jacob Hill
- Air Force Deputy Chaplain for New York State, U.S. Air Force Auxiliary (Civil Air Patrol), and Special Advisor to the Chief Chaplain of Air Force
- 68 years old; lives on Long Island
- Rabbi Hill and his unit are deployed anywhere there has been a mass casualty event, like a hurricane or a mass shooting, to assist civilians and military personnel alike. He conducts Jewish religious services but also provides secular counseling and guidance to people of all faiths.
- He enlisted six years ago. “I was always a civilian, working in a family business – and I still do that. But on 9/11, I saw Building 2 come down – and I knew that I had to do something. This is my country; I love my country, and this is what I do in order to pay back.”
- Rabbi Hill had to take some extra steps to ensure that his training didn’t interfere with keeping mitzvos. “It was hard to complete my training because most of the instruction is on Shabbos and Sunday, but I was able to find other ways to do it. I never fooled around with Shabbos.” Though he has never had to break kashrus, he has occasionally carried his cell phone on Shabbos, as he did during a “search and rescue” operation earlier this year
- Still, the Air Force has gone to great lengths to accommodate Jacob’s religious needs. “I never really have to sacrifice. This past year we were able to get kosher MREs [food rations]. The Air Force slowly is adapting and helping the frum It takes a long time but were slowly turning things around.”
- “I hope to see more Orthodox Jews – and Jews of all denominations – join the Armed Forces.”
Rabbi Joseph Friedman of Brooklyn
- “Jews are very grateful [for the veterans]. We’ve been living in peace here in America better than we have been anywhere else in the last 2,000 years. We very much appreciate what America has given us: We have freedom for our synagogues; and for our schools, Jewish teachings have proliferated very much here in America.”
Rabbi David Miller of Lakewood
- “We’re here to salute our vets and honor their service. The Talmud says that one should pray for the peace of the nation. Vets are the ones who protected us from our enemies, and they made it a peaceful place to live. The least we can do is come out here once a year and salute all those who are putting their lives on the line to protect the nation… We’re one nation under G-d.”
Julie Wittert and daughters
- Lives in Fresh Meadows
- “I’m here to support the troops because they help to make this country what it is. We have a lot of freedoms that we wouldn’t have without them.”
- Patriotism runs in Julie’s family: “My father is a Marine and grandfather was in the 101st Airborne.”
Article and photos by Emily Cohen