Al Muskovitz writes about three heartwarming events he attended courtesy of the Detroit Jewish War Veterans.
I had the privilege of witnessing three inspiring, heartwarming events recently courtesy of our beloved Detroit Jewish War Veterans (JWV). Being vaccinated and the easing of COVID restrictions allowed me to experience two of those events in person.
Ike and Guy
On May 13, I was a bystander to a wonderful conversation between two pillars of our community — Dr. Guy Stern, director of the International Institute of the Righteous at the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC), and Dr. Isaiah (Ike) McKinnon, former Detroit police chief and deputy mayor of the city of Detroit under Mayor Duggan.
At 99 years young, you will still find Stern, who enjoyed a long and distinguished career in academia, working six days a week at the HMC. McKinnon, 78, today is the CEO of City Shield Security Services and a contributor on law enforcement issues on The News with Shepard Smith on CNBC.
Stern had been featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes on May 9, along with two other surviving members of the “Ritchie Boys,” the elite WWII military unit that trained at Fort Ritchie in Maryland. The television appearance was previewed May 7 on the JN website, thejewishnews.com.
Like Stern, many of the Ritchie Boys were Jewish German immigrants whose language skills were relied on by the U.S. Intelligence Service to interrogate Nazi prisoners of war. Ultimately, Stern and his comrades would be given credit for securing 60% of the vital intelligence in Europe during WWII. That contribution earned Stern the bronze star.
McKinnon had seen the 60 Minutes segment and was so moved by Stern’s story that, as the former chief said to me, “I just had to meet him.” A doctor’s visit would pave the way for that introduction.
Ironically, neuroradiologist Dr. Steve Seidman, with whom Ike was scheduled to meet two days after the 60 Minutes story aired, happened to bring up the Stern appearance during their visit. (Ike told me, so no HIPAA laws were broken!)
It turns out that Seidman’s office, the Michigan Institute for Neurological Disorders, is just north of the HMC on Orchard Lake Road where his brother-in-law Tim Zimmerman has been the building manager since 2004. Seidman made a call to Tim. Tim then informed HMC events director Sarah Saltzman about Ike’s desire to meet Stern. That’s when he learned Saltzman worked with Ike at the University of Detroit Mercy when she was special events manager and Ike was a professor and head of public safety. Jewish geography at its finest. The dots were connected and a May 13 meeting set.
McKinnon and Stern share a history of unimaginable intolerance and incredible perseverance that dates back to their youth. Isaiah McKinnon at age 14 survived a beating at the hands of four Detroit police officers only to make a vow at a young age to dedicate his life to change. From taking a beating to becoming a beat cop to eventually rising to chief of police.
Stern at age 15 faced growing antisemitism and ostracism in 1937 Germany, even among those who he called his closest boyhood friends. A foreshadowing of what was to come, Guenther’s (Guy’s) father chose his teenage son to be the sole representative of the family to travel alone to the U.S. in hopes of securing sponsorship and safe passage for the rest of the family. A heartless U.S. lawyer thwarted Stern’s efforts just when his mission seemed to be within reach. Stern’s parents and siblings ended up perishing in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Ike McKinnon has been a dear friend of mine for years and, knowing my close association with the JWV, thought I would love to chronicle the meeting of the two.
Ike and Guy had an instantaneous camaraderie upon their meeting. It was an inspiring back-and-forth dialogue about serious issues but not without moments of lightheartedness and laughter. It was like observing a conversation between lifelong friends.
They spoke of their respective histories of challenges as a Jew in Nazi Germany and an African American in Detroit in the 1960s. Ike had so many questions for Guy, and he absorbed every last detail like a sponge.
It was an open and frank conversation about their collective life experiences; the way things were and the ways things are today. “If you see something, speak up,” Ike said when reflecting on the hate and divisiveness that still exists today and the prospect of history repeating itself.
In that same light, Stern recalled a message he delivered in a keynote address to dignitaries in a return visit to Germany a few years ago. He alluded to the divisiveness in our country and the overall volatility in the world today when he said “beware of the beginning of tyranny. Democracy is a very fragile flower.”
You can read more about these two generational heroes in Guy Stern’s recent autobiography Invisible Ink and McKinnon’s memoir Stand Tall.
Hillel Hosts Heroes
Just prior to the Memorial Day weekend, fifth- and sixth-graders at Hillel Day School were immersed in a project that asked the students to identify and write about their everyday heroes. At the same time, seventh- and eighth-graders were focusing on military campaigns that have had a profound impact on our nation’s history.
To that end, the school invited the JWV to provide two veterans to share their perspectives, in an age-appropriate fashion, about their military experiences. The Zoom sessions took place on Friday, May 28.
Nick Israel of Farmington Hills, 36, addressed the fifth- and sixth-grade students. Israel is a University of Michigan grad and Army veteran who among his many roles served in the cavalry and later in psychological operations. Today, he’s a member of the Michigan Air National Guard and is studying for his master’s of science at New York’s Columbia University.
Israel’s affection for and dedication to the JWV was central to his talk. He made sure to explain the history of the JWV and shared impactful stories of Detroit Jewish veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country during WWII, Vietnam and the War on Terror.
Explaining his introduction to the Army, Israel told the kids that “in college at the height of the Iraqi War [of 2003], I felt the need to not sit on the bench. So, I decided to join the Army and do something for our country.”
Israel included stories of his Jewish experience in the military including how he observed Passover and Chanukah from an armored tank. The students were no doubt particularly riveted to a training video Israel shared of him parachuting from an airplane.
Hillel seventh- and eighth-graders were treated to stories from a member of our Greatest Generation — 96-year-old WWII veteran Jerry Manchel of West Bloomfield, whose third-grade grandchild Lucy attends the school.
I spoke with Manchel prior to his Zoom session. He confessed to being nervous about making a presentation in front of so many people. Nervous, I thought? This from a man who flew 43 missions over the Pacific as a radio/gunner on a B-24 bomber?
After the fact, it would take some time to convince him, but Jerry Manchel represented beautifully. He proudly spoke of his service and the unique perspective he had as a witness to the history of WWII.
Among those indelible memories, Manchel described flying over Nagasaki, Japan, four days after the dropping of the atomic bomb and later seeing firsthand Japanese leaders landing at the Ie Shima, Japan, airfield on their way to officially surrendering.
Manchel also fondly recalled receiving a message from President Harry Truman through his military aide, thanking him for sending a photograph of the plane Manchel flew bearing the commander-in-chief’s name. The photo was returned autographed along with words of gratitude from the president.
The positive impression Israel and Manchel made on the students was evidenced by the depth of thoughtful inquiries the students made during Q & A sessions. The issue of antisemitism while serving in the military was raised. Manchel said fortunately he was never on the receiving end of such discrimination. Israel described the military as a “great environment for our Jewish service members, with many allies against any hint of Jewish hatred.” A collective heartfelt “thank you for your service” was shared by the students at the end of each program.
On Sunday, May 30, members of our Detroit area JWV posts gathered at the Veterans Section at Machpelah Cemetery in Ferndale for their annual Memorial Day weekend tribute to their comrades of blessed memory. The Women’s Auxiliary and family members of the veterans were well represented.
As he has done for the last several years, Rabbi Michael Moskowitz led a brief dedication ceremony. He reflected on the year that had passed: “Since the last time we gathered for Memorial Day prayers, 20 American individuals have lost their lives. On one level we think it’s a small number. And compared to years past, it has decreased. We give thanks to that reality. But it’s still 20 families that have lost a loved one, 20 friends that have buried a loved one. The impact of one life, we all understand what that means.”
Compounding that loss over the many years of conflicts our nation has endured, Rabbi Moskowitz gave thanks to all who have laid their lives on the line, remembering each and every one as “the best of what this country has to offer.”
The service concluded with the playing of taps by Paul Roache, a volunteer with Bugles Across America.
Take pride in and support our JWV. They are the oldest active service organization in the United States. In doing so, you’re not only making a difference in the lives of our Jewish service men and women but you’re supporting, as declared in their mission statement, “to encourage the doctrine of universal liberty, equal rights, and full justice for all men and women.”