Rabbi Yoskowitz’s U.S. Army chaplaincy work honored at Ammunition Hill.
Rabbi Herbert A. Yoskowitz
Friday, June 15, 2018, is a day I will long remember. It was a hot, sunny day with a cloudless blue sky as only the Jerusalem sky can be in June. On that Friday morning, I stood next to my wife, Rachel, surrounded by our children, grandchildren, friends and Israeli family as my name was added to the Wall of Honor at Ammunition Hill.
I stood in awe as my name plaque joined 330 other non-Israeli Jewish soldiers who had served in defense of freedom in their own countries. Among those honored on the Wall are the Bielski family, Hana Senesch and men whom I had met in congregations and conferences. It was a thrilling moment that permanently linked me to Israel and to Jerusalem, the soul of our people.
Ammunition Hill had been the border between Israel and Jordan from 1948, when the armistice lines were drawn, until June 1967. The hill was heavily fortified. In 1967, in a key battle of the Six-Day War, the hill, Givat Ha’tachmoshet, was taken by the IDF. The prize was the reunification of Jerusalem. The cost was great.
Ammunition Hill has been an important site to our family. We always visit when we are in Israel. Our oldest son wrote about it for his college admissions application that asked for an essay about the most memorable place he had visited.
It was memorable years ago when we first visited. Then, the hill was a barren site of brown grass, trenches, concrete bunkers and the relics of battle. Those visits were very moving as we walked through a memorial tunnel and read the biographies of the young men who had fallen there — Israeli soldiers who gave their lives to defend Israel and return a united Jerusalem to our people.
Now, Ammunition Hill is a designated National Memorial Site visited by 250,000 people annually. Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet) and the Israeli government have established an appropriate monument there, including a memorial hall, an amphitheater and the Wall of Honor.
Three years ago, my wife and I stood in front of the newly erected Wall of Honor and I reflected on those named there, on my service in the U.S. Army and how meaningful that service had been to me. It was 1970, the period of the Vietnam War and, as a newly ordained rabbi, I volunteered to serve. My first posting was Fort Riley, Kansas, with the Fifth Army. There, I implemented a Christian-Jewish dialogue series on the State of Israel that became a model for the entire Fifth Army.
It was a unique opportunity to teach soldiers and civilians of all denominations. The series occurred over three-and-a-half months and drew a consistent audience of 50. Each session was three hours but, afterwards, the attendees lingered to talk to the speakers and each other. The effect was heightened awareness of our history, religion and peoplehood. Ministers, priests and other military chaplains asked how to implement interfaith dialogue, and I wrote a guide for clergy to model this program.
Word of the successful dialogue series reached Menachem Begin who, at the time, was the leader of the opposition party in the Knesset. You can imagine my surprise when I received a copy of Begin’s book personally inscribed to me.
The dialogue project earned me a U.S. Army Commendation Medal and designation as Army Chaplain of the Year. But, more than that, it earned friends for Israel.
Similarly, as chaplain in Seoul, Republic of Korea (my second posting), I traveled from base to base to serve our troops, to teach Judaism, to administer our U.S. Army religious school and support Israel. Israel was on my mind, as it was in my heart.
This year, upon my retirement from the pulpit, a group of friends, unbeknownst to me, privately arranged to honor me on Ammunition Hill. It was the perfect choice. I received a letter of notification from Jewish National Fund that reads, in part: “ … In appreciation for your wisdom, your pastoral care and your selfless dedication in serving your congregants, the community and Israel for 47 years.”
I was overwhelmed by their generosity. Serving to defend freedom was a highlight of my rabbinic career. Defending Israel in word and deed is a constant in my life. It is gratifying to be identified by those hallmarks and connected to a site that carries such a powerful message and meaning. I was blessed to stand with my loved ones before the Wall of Honor on Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem.
Herbert A. Yoskowitz is rabbi emeritus of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. He is the Jewish chaplain at the John Dingell VA Medical Center, Detroit, and, for many years, served as chief rabbi, Department of Michigan Jewish War Veterans.