Jewish War Veterans trying to recruit younger members
By Stacey Dresner
In honor of Memorial Day — the federal holiday to remember those who have died while serving in the American military — members of the 16 Massachusetts posts of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States are out in force.
In the Berkshires, members of Jewish War Veterans Louis Green Post 140 decorated veterans’ graves with American flags at the Knesset Israel and Temple Anshe Amunim cemeteries in Pittsfield. On Memorial Day, some of its members will march in the Pittsfield Memorial Day Parade.
With the help of a local Boy Scout Troop, the Jewish War Veterans of Springfield-Freedman Post 26 will place flags on the graves of Jewish veterans in three local cemeteries, City of Homes and Sinai Cemetery in Springfield and the Jewish cemeteries in West Springfield.
And members of the Col. Irving J. Yarock Post 32 of the Jewish War Veterans (JWV) in Worcester will be installing 400 flags on the graves of Jewish vets in the three Jewish cemeteries in Worcester.
Richard Katz is one of the younger members of JWV Post 32 in Worcester.
He is 70.
Katz, who served stateside in the Army National Guard during the Vietnam War joined the JWV fairly recently.
“I saw the movie and then I read the book Unbroken, and it affected me so much,” he said. “I never had any thoughts of joining Jewish War Veterans or any veterans association. Then I read the book and I ended up talking to Herb and Jack [leaders of JWV Post 32].”
It is men like Katz, and all of the younger military veterans in the Jewish community that the Jewish War Veterans are trying to recruit.
“If you go to some areas like in Jersey and down south in the Carolinas and Florida, where you have a naval or a military base, they are very active, with active reservists and active members and good growth,” explained Jack Reiff, Commander of Post 32. “But you go into other areas like Worcester and there is not as much interest… But we’ve got a proud history, going back to the Revolutionary War…We are trying to get something going, if we can get the kids active, that is the important thing.”
Other JWV posts are having similar problems attracting younger members.
“Membership is and has been an issue not only for our post, but also for the Department of Mass. JWV, The National JWV, and many other veterans organizations,” said Stanley Light, Commander of the Jewish War Veterans of Springfield-Freedman Post 26. “The heyday for membership in veterans organizations was after World War II and Korea. We now seek both younger members and older vets who for some reason or another, never got around to joining.”
The Springfield post presently has 57 dues-paying members. The oldest is Harry Aisenstat, who just turned 100. Most of Springfield’s members are veterans from World War II and the Korean War. Ten members are from the Vietnam War and Gulf War eras.
“In reality,” says Light, “we only have eight members that are ‘active.’ Most of our older members reside out-of-state, in nursing homes or in assisted living facilities. Due to health reasons and/or advanced age, they are no longer able to participate in post activities.”
Stan agreed that recruiting younger members is the only thing that will keep the Jewish War Veterans going.
“Younger members are the key to our existence and the hope for our future,” he said. “When you look at the numbers, most of our members are in their late 80’s and 90’s.
In the past five years, we have lost 34 members. Those who are left maintain their membership by paying their annual dues if they are able. But they can’t attend meetings, serve as officers, or engage in post activities. Nearly all of the ‘younger’ members –
and at 68, I consider myself in that category — are still working and don’t have time to participate. You need members who have
the time and vitality to do the work of running the organization.”
Robert Waldheim took over as Commander of the Berkshires JWV Post 140, which is affiliated with Congregation Knesset Israel, one year ago when longtime commander Robert Schindler died.
Waldheim, who served in the Vietnam War in the 3rd Battalion 9th Marines on the DMZ in 1967-1968, joined the JWV in 2000.
At 67, Waldheim is the youngest member of his post. All of the other approximately 36 members are older, mostly veterans of World War II.
“The membership has dwindled through death and relocation,” Waldheim said.
For many years, Waldheim has belonged to Vietnam Veterans of America James E. Callahan Berkshire Chapter 65 and its color guard and has marched with that organization in holiday parades and served in the color guard at veterans’ funerals.
“Every time we had a Veterans Day celebration or Fourth of July or Memorial Day parade in Pittsfield, Bob Schindler would come up to me and say, ‘So, when are you going to march with the Jewish War Veterans?’ And I would say, ‘Bob, you know my allegiance. I am a Vietnam veteran and I belong to Chapter 65 Vietnam Veterans, but one of these days I am going to march with the Jewish War Veterans. I promise.”
Last year Waldheim, who winters in Florida, came home in February for his wife’s uncle’s funeral and he ran into Commander Schindler, who by then was residing in a nursing home.
“I said to him, ‘As soon as we come home in April, I am going to sit down with you and I want to transition into this and take over the JWV. Because there wasn’t anyone else who could do it or even had the desire to do it.”
Waldheim went back to Florida and three weeks later he heard that Commander Schindler had died.
“So I didn’t get a chance to pick his brain. I have done this for the last year by the seat of my pants,” Waldheim said. “Here I am commander of the Jewish War Veterans and it’s a struggle to say the least. But I am slowly networking and recruiting.”
Sometimes it takes a little detective work to find potential members.
On May 10, when Schindler and his wife Ruth were installing flags on the graves of veterans buried in Knesset Israel’s cemetery in Pittsfield and the shul’s “old cemetery” which dates back to the 1800s, he was told that someone has been putting flags on the graves of veterans in a Jewish cemetery in North Adams.
“I’ve got to find out who it is,” he said. “They have to be Jewish, number one, and maybe they are someone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan that I can pin a star on. That is basically how I am recruiting…I’ve got to go find them.”
While JWV posts are intent on seeking younger veterans, even Jack Reiff, 83, commander of Post 32 in Worcester, joined only 10 years ago. Reiff, who was in the U.S. Coast Guard Air Sea Rescue during the Korean War, serving in the North Atlantic and the New England coastline, joined for the same reason most Jewish war veterans do.
“There wasn’t enough being done about Jewish veterans and the contributions the Jewish war veterans were making to the country and the safety and security of the country. I didn’t think we were paying enough attention to the Jewish war dead.”
Already a member of the VFW, the Disabled War Veterans and the American Legion, Reiff said he joined the JWV because he thought it “showed a little more in-depth respect for the veterans.”
Most of the veterans in Post 32, like Reiff, are in their 80s and upward – the oldest is 92.
“I think it is hard for any religious organization to get any of the younger generation to join,” Katz said. “We are trying to recruit people that are in the ROTC who are going to be Jewish veterans, and are opening our membership to them so they can participate.”
In Worcester, Richard Katz and Marty Rosenbaum, another member who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Air Force paratrooper, are trying to get some of their contemporaries to come onboard.
“Together we have been trying to find a way to get all of the reservists and National Guard to join. If you wore a uniform you can join the Jewish War Veterans,” Katz said. “To allow something that is this old and this close to the Jewish community to dissolve because of non-commitment doesn’t seem like an option,” Katz said.
But it is an uphill battle.
“I talk to guys that I know were in the National Guard and they say, ‘Call me when I’m 80,” Katz said. “They think it is a bunch of old guys sitting around, drinking coffee on a Sunday morning and talking about the war.“
But the JWV is so much more than that.
The Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America is the oldest veterans’ group in the U.S. Founded on March 15, 1896 in New York City, the roll call of its first meeting includes 63 Jewish Civil War veterans, recorded as members of the Hebrew Union Veterans. The organization was founded in part because of a newspaper article that falsely reported that Jews had not served in the war.
The JWV in Worcester has a long history as well. Founded in 1896, it is celebrating its 120th year. A gala will be held in September which will be attended by its approximately 90 members as well as guests like representatives from Congress.
Besides commemorating Memorial Day, JWV posts participate in other activities.
The Worcester Post marches in the Veterans Day Parade as well as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Worcester each year. The post participates in community programs for disabled veterans, helps out at military “stand-downs” – events organized by the Department of Veterans Affairs, where veterans can get assistance like counseling, health screenings, employment and housing aid, and substance abuse treatment.
In the past, Stan Light said, Post 26 in Springfield was very active in community affairs, hosting fundraisers and Poppy Drives, dinners, raffles, dances, and trips.
“We still try to engage in a few activities and will do so as long as we can,” he said.
The post holds monthly meetings at the Springfield JCC (with the exception of July and August in the summer and December and January in the winter); hosts Bingo at the Regional VA Hospital in Northampton and donates to their Holiday Gift Program; visits veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers Home; attends veteran’s funerals, as well as other events and commemorations.
The National JWV has set up a program for young men and women who are serving active duty to join the JWV and their local post, free from dues.
“This is done with the hope they will continue as dues-paying members when they are discharged from the military,” said Stan Light. “As a Post Commander, I try to get the word out to as many as I can. When speaking at a ceremony or synagogue function, I always ask for a show of hands to see how many are veterans or active duty. I leave handouts and business cards at these functions. Word of mouth from our members also helps.”
He said that this year, due to scheduling conflicts, the Springfield Post will not be holding the Memorial Day service it usually hosts at the Springfield JCC.
At the Memorial Day parade in Pittsfield on May 30, Waldheim said that six members are set to march, while four members who are unable to walk the mile and a half of the parade route, will ride along in a van. There will also be a Jewish War Veteran’s Memorial Day Shabbat service held at Knesset Israel.
Waldheim said that he is going to continue his work to recruit new members and grow the Berkshires JWV post.
“It’s a labor of love for me as a Marine veteran,” Waldheim said. “There’s something deep down inside me that says, ‘Carry this on and keep it going.’”