Photo credit: Israel Mizrahi
Our history is filled with stories of edicts enlisting Jews, often young children, to fight in the local ruler’s wars. From Russia to Poland to the Ottoman Empire, local folklore has preserved many stories of people committed to their faith who, under threat of death or torture, persisted in their attempts to keep Judaism in life even in the most difficult conditions. Many young Jews changed their names, fled the country, or self-inflicted disqualifying injuries to avoid conscription.
Even without the blatant anti-Semitism still present in armies such as the Tsar’s army, a Jewish soldier who tried to keep the mitzvot found an almost impossible feat. A cache of documents I acquired this week recounts the efforts of a group who, during World War II, founded the organization Sabbath Observers in Civil Service to defend and support those in the United States military who observed the Sabbath. . Led by Mr. Abraham Goldstein and Miss Gertrude N. Zavin, members of the Radio City Synagogue in New York, the letters recount the many scenarios and correspondences they have attempted to assist, with varying degrees of success.
A letter from the Department of the Navy dated November 11, 1942 states: “It is the desire of your committee that the records of persons who have been suspended for absence on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, the high Jewish holy days, be expunged. . I regret to inform you that this cannot be viewed favorably. I think you will agree with me that this case was difficult to handle and that when the war effort could be furthered by observing regular working hours on these holy days…it had to be done in the interests of safety national…”
Another letter dated August 19, 1943 was sent to the Veterans Administration in New York. “Mildred Steinberg and Elaine Feldman, employees of your agency, have been asked to resign if they do not intend to start work on Saturday. It is with deep regret that we and other Orthodox Jewish organizations have learned of this. These girls are willing to make up for lost time, or forfeit wages for lost time, or make any other equitable arrangement possible as long as they can observe their Sabbath in accordance with the precepts of their faith…”