Yom Kippur – Military Holiday Duty
How those in the military
balance the High Holidays with
The challenges of getting ready for the High Holidays. Maybe, in your case, it’s the added stress of preparing Rosh Hashanah dinner for a house full of guests or the ordering of the right-sized deli tray for the break-fast. Then there’s the pressure of arriving at synagogue services at the exact right time to secure the highly coveted, easy-to-exit parking space.
Now, imagine the challenges of getting ready for the High Holidays while in the uniform of one of our U.S. Armed Forces stationed thousands of miles away from home during WWII, the Vietnam War or in the middle of intense fighting in Afghanistan. It’s a different perspective I recently had the privilege of learning more about.
This year, Art Fishman, 91, senior vice commander of the Jewish War Veterans State of Michigan, drove to Rosh Hashanah services at Temple Shir Shalom in his 2017 Chevy Equinox. On Rosh Hashanah Sept. 8, 1945, Art arrived at services at the City of Shanghai Synagogue in a rickshaw.
“On the day before Rosh Hashanah, my executive officer on the destroyer the U.S.S. Robinson informed me that after my morning duty, I was to stop by the supply officer and get a winter dress uniform,” Art said. “I was being granted time off to leave the ship to attend High Holiday services.” It would be a nice respite from his assignment aboard the Robinson — mine-sweeping operations along the Yangtze River.
Art recalls paying somewhere between 5 and 10 cents (not including tip) for his rickshaw ride. A pretty inexpensive chauffeur ride to hear a shofar. Following services, Art, along with about 40 other Jewish service men, were treated to lunch that included “Russian vodka mixed with orange juice in Coke bottles.”
Making An Impact
The late Rabbi Allan Blustein, former director of pastoral care at Sinai Hospital in Detroit from 1981-1991, always dreamed of being in the Army. That desire to give back to his country was, to a great extent, born out of his witnessing as a young man the extraordinary care his father, a WWI veteran, received in the V.A. hospital in his hometown of Chicago. That opportunity to serve would come in 1958, when Allan heard the Army needed Jewish chaplains.
Having only been ordained as an Orthodox rabbi since 1957 from the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Allan, newly married, gave up being a pulpit rabbi in Chicago and enlisted in the Army in 1958. A series of health issues — serious enough to keep him from the frontline in Vietnam but not out of uniform — would not deter him from making a profound impact over the course of his 22½-year military career; especially during the High Holidays.
The rabbi’s widow, Judy, 80, of West Bloomfield, shared the following moving experiences with me about her husband that took place over the course of his tour of duty in Europe in the 1960s.
While stationed in Orleans, France, the rabbi would be in receipt of extra kosher food supplied by the Jewish Welfare Board in New York that arrived in time for the High Holidays, specifically earmarked for Holocaust survivors. “He had the Jewish GIs make the deliveries because they were too young to know very much about the war,” Judy said. “He wanted his soldiers to see the survivors face to face.”
While based in Nuremberg, Germany, Judy told me, just prior to Rosh Hashanah, her husband “would take Jewish troops to several hidden gravestones in the forests where he would read the names of the Holocaust victims and lead the GIs in saying Kaddish for them.”
Also, in each of their three years there, Judy recounted how, before the High Holidays, her husband would “take our three young daughters to the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. He sat each of them down in Hermann Göring’s chair and talked to them about the Holocaust, each in terms they could understand. They still associate the High Holidays with a seriousness from that experience.”
Allan Blustein passed away in 1992 at age 61. He made the most of a life shortened by a long illness. For his distinguished military career and his selfless dedication to his country, Lt. Col. Rabbi Allan Marshall Blustein was the recipient of two of our nation’s most prestigious awards: the Four Chaplains Award and the Legion of Merit Medal.
Holidays During Combat
Colten Baitch, 32, spent his formative years in Michigan. Raised in an Orthodox household, his family moved to Ann Arbor in 1993 when he was 7 years old. After graduating from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, Colten joined the Army in 2005 and remains on active duty today.
“I’ve been an Orthodox Jew my whole life and in my 14 years of continued active service,” Colten says. He has done three combat tours of duty; twice in Iraq in 2005-2006 and 2008-2009, and once in Afghanistan in 2010.
Colten has faced many years when his observance of the High Holidays and his service to his country have intersected; none more agonizing than when serving in a Scout Sniper Platoon in August 2010. His platoon had just suffered tremendous casualties, and Baitch’s unit, deployed in the Arghandab River Valley in the Kandahar Province in Afghanistan, “was ordered to clear the entire valley of enemy fighters,” he said.
“The operation took several weeks and went the entirety of the High Holidays. I was one of the first American soldiers to infiltrate the Village of Marjan and set up a sniper position on Rosh Hashanah … with a siddur and an Israeli flag tucked inside my body armor.”
The battle waged on through the Day of Atonement. “I fasted while fighting on Yom Kippur, with the exception of water. I spent the day spotting enemy fighters and calling for mortar and artillery fire on their positions for Bravo Company, which was taking heavy fire. I would pray during lulls in action. They gave me the option to get pulled back to observe the holiday, but our unit was so close to one another and the fighting was so heavy that I refused to go.”
Colten looks back on that fateful time in his life with no regrets. “We ended up securing the valley and minimizing Taliban freedom of maneuver; never once did I ever receive any sort of flak for being so devout to my beliefs as a Jew.”
He said his actions earned him respect and acknowledgement from his peers and superiors.
“It was a memorable and solemn fight that I will carry on my shoulders for the rest of my life,” Colten says. “I am proud to say I did all of this as a Jew, a religious Jew.”
Colten still serves in the Army as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. Thankfully, this year, he will spend Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, out of harm’s way with his local Chabad congregation and with his wife, Shayna, and their two daughters, Bayla, 3, and Naomi, 1, by his side.
Wishing all our Jewish War Veterans a happy, healthy and safe new year.