Jewish War Veteran Stan Light marches on
By Stacey Dresner
When Stan Light reads the obituaries, he looks for Jewish war veterans.
“I always read the obits in the newspaper, first, to make sure I’m not in there,” Light jokes. “But every time I see a Jewish name or somebody who was Jewish and was a veteran I always wonder why they weren’t a member of our post.”
Since 2007, Light, 70, has served as commander of JWV Post 26 in Springfield. For the past year, he has served as Massachusetts Department Commander of the Jewish War Veterans, a position that oversees all of the JWV posts in the state of Massachusetts. “It’s really a great honor,” said Light, who added that he is only the second Springfield area Jewish War Veteran who has held the State Department.
Currently there are 17 JWV posts in Mass., with only 10 considered active (with dues-paying members). Statewide, there are approximately 800 members.
Members attend monthly meetings, visit veterans in local VA hospitals and march in parades.
The Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America was founded in 1989, in part because of the perception that Jews had not fought in the Civil War.
For many years, the Jewish War Veterans thrived, especially after World War II.
“That was the heyday of Jewish War Veterans. All of those young people joined the service; they weren’t drafted. They weren’t forced to go and so it meant a lot to them,” Light said. “After they got out, posts were formed or they joined posts that were active. And so there were a lot of members. When you crunch the numbers you see that all of the World War II and Korean War veterans are in their 80’s or 90’s.”
Light said that with the exception of some Vietnam era veterans his age, younger veterans are not joining as much.
“Membership is one of our major goals and it has always been a big problem,” he said. “I’ve been watching the number of posts dwindling. Since I started becoming involved in the Department in Massachusetts, we have closed about six or seven posts.”
Earlier this year, JWV South Shore Post 302 merged with Sharon Post 735.
Still, the Jewish War Veterans march on.
Last week, JWV members put American flags on the graves of veterans in several Jewish cemeteries around both Western and Central Massachusetts in advance of Memorial Day.
On Monday, May 28, some JWV members will march in Memorial Day parades in their towns, but as Light says, their numbers are fewer and fewer each year as members age and pass away. Attracting younger Jewish veterans is critical for the organization’s survival.
“We march in parades, sometimes only two or three of us,” Light said. “Younger members are the key to our existence and the hope for our future.”
A big Navy town
Light is a native of Newport, Rhode Island.
“Growing up in Newport was good. It was a big navy town, so I was familiar with the military; in fact, we used to rent the upstairs of our house to Navy people,” he recalls. “There were two stationed bands in Newport and my brother took music lessons from them. It was wonderful, and that’s probably one of the principal reasons that I got involved in Jewish War Veterans.”
Light attended the historic Touro Synagogue. “That’s where my family were members. I was bar mitzvahed there,” he said.
Light and the other kids didn’t exactly understand how historic their temple was, but had an inkling there was something special about it since dignitaries would often visit.
“I knew about the trap door under the bimah, but I never went down there,” he laughed.
His father, who was from Alabama originally, had been a Seaman First Class stationed in Newport when he met Light’s mother, who worked in a government office in Newport.
“He was Jewish – not the most religious person in the world,” Light recalled.
His parents married and settled in Newport where they owned a small grocery store where both parents worked.
Stan went on to attend the University of Rhode Island where he received a bachelor’s degree in zoology. “I wanted to be a veterinarian,” he said. He later decided he wanted to go to dental school and took the boards in preparation.
Light’s story of going into the military is a little different from soldiers of earlier generations, like young men who enlisted during World War II wanting to vanquish Hitler and the Nazis.
Graduating from college in 1969, Light, like many young American men at that time, was worried about being sent to fight in Vietnam. At the height of the war in Vietnam, lots of young men were applying to medical and dental school as a deferment.
“When I was in college I was one of those hippie types with my hair down to my shoulders,” he recalled. “Toward the end of my schooling, I had applied to dental schools. I took the dental boards and did very well, and applied to several schools.
“I hadn’t heard back from any schools but I got a letter from Uncle Sam that said, ‘We understand you are graduating from college and if you don’t have a deferment or any other plans, we have plans for you.’ And the plans that they had were not the plans I was excited about.”
Because he had played French horn in both high school and college, he spoke to an Air Force representative about possibly playing in one of its bands.
“All of the branches of the service had bands and recruiters. I told the [Air Force] recruiter, ‘I’m a musician, unless you have a place for a zoologist.”
“They said, ‘We can get you into a station band.’ They looked it up and there were two bands close to Newport. One was here in Chicopee, the Westover band, and there was a band on the Cape. They said the way this works is before you even enlist, you go to the band and audition and if you pass the audition and if they have a spot for you in band then you are guaranteed to go into that spot at least for the first 18 months. Then if you go to basic training your orders are automatically cut, no matter what they say.”
During basic training, Light qualified as expert on the rifle range.
“I said ‘whoops,’” he laughed, “but my orders were cut, so luckily, not only did I serve the first 18 months in the Westover band, but I was there all four years I was in the Air Force.
“If I had gotten drafted it would only have been two years. I figured four safe, alive years of music would be better than two not so alive years getting shot at.”
The band played in concerts all over the area, in high schools and junior highs, and marched in parades, and dedicated VFW halls and “rocks” as he called some of the monuments installed throughout the area.
“It was fairly good duty. If I had to do it again I don’t think I would go in as an enlisted man because they don’t treat you as well as an officer,” he said. “And after a while we weren’t treated that well. I remember once we marched in a parade in New York – it might have been a St. Patrick’s Day parade – and most of the people clapped for us. Some of the people threw stuff at us just because we were in the military. We were just guys in the band.
One of those friends was Ben Jaffe who now lives in Springfield and is a member of the Springfield JWV post.
After his stint in the Air Force, he went to Western New England College Law School, going into private practice in 1977 and specializing in family and juvenile law.
At 70, he says, he is winding down and not taking as many cases as he used to, but joked, “I’ll keep practicing until I get it right.”
He says he first heard about the Jewish War Veterans at the age of 15 when his father passed away.
“When we would go to the cemetery to visit him I was always impressed that there was a flag and a marker saying he was a veteran on his grave. That kind of impressed me and I asked my mom, ‘Who puts the flags on these graves?” She said, ‘Well, there is this Jewish war veterans organization in Rhode Island and I send them a small donation every year, and they put the flag on his grave.”
After his mother passed away, Stan kept up with some of the contributions she made, including one to the JWV.
“I think later on I started getting mail from them about joining and so I joined the JWV around 1998. I wasn’t a member of any particular post, I didn’t even know there was a JWV post in Springfield.”
In 2005, Light was contacted by the late Shirley Hersh, who had been commander of the post for around 11 years.
“She was getting older and really couldn’t do it anymore. She had received something from the national Jewish War Veterans saying I had joined the JWV and she said ‘Why don’t you become a member of our post. Come to a meeting.’”
Eighteen months after joining, Hersh said she was going to retire and began looking for a replacement. At one meeting, she asked if there were any volunteers.
“I was the baby of the group. At this time I was in my 60s and everybody around me was 70, 80 years old. Nobody raised their hands, and when they looked around, there I was sitting in the back of the room and they were all looking at me – the young person.”
After learning that if he didn’t take over the post would either have to merge with another or close, Light agreed to be its leader.
“By this time, I had been active in the post for about four years. I got to meet the people and I saw how this was a good part of their life. They really enjoyed being in it and I just couldn’t see the post go down the tubes.
“And I still am commander today and you know, I can’t really understand my reluctance to become part of JWV earlier. If I knew more about them then I would have joined earlier. But I really love doing this. It’s a special thing.”
Honoring 70 U.S. Veterans
In 1948, many recently demobilized American veterans (both Jewish and non-Jewish) volunteered to fight to defend the Jewish homeland. Many volunteered out of their ideological commitment to Zionism; others out of a desire to prevent another Holocaust. Some 3,500 overseas volunteers–many of them U.S. veterans–fought in the war. Serving on all fronts, these volunteers were known as MACHAL in Hebrew.
It should be noted that the United States made it extremely difficult for its veterans to fight for Israel during this time. All passports were stamped with an explicit warning that if a citizen left the country to serve in the military of a foreign state, the passport-holder could lose his or her citizenship.
This highlights just how great the effort and sacrifices were of the truly heroic volunteers who chose to put their lives on the line for the sake of their Jewish brothers and sisters, struggling for independence thousands of miles away.
Overall, American veterans made up a very small percentage of the Israeli forces, with one important exception. Due to a severe lack of homegrown talent, the fledgling Israeli Air Force was essentially founded, run and staffed throughout the war by a majority of foreign volunteers, with a major U.S. contingent. There were so many Americans involved that, for a time, English became the de facto language of the fledgling Israel Air Force.
Similarly, the Israeli Navy was founded and commanded by American veterans. Paul Shulman, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with combat experience in the Pacific, served as the commander of the Israeli Navy from 1948 through 1949.
Without these brave and heroic volunteers, Israel would have had no functioning air force or navy. Their dedicated service may well have determined the outcome of the war.