This blog often features personal narratives written by Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Today’s historical “guest blogger” is Rabbi Lee J. Levinger (1890–1966).
One of the most interesting books I’ve read in years was A Jewish Chaplain in France, a 1921 memoir by a young Reform rabbi from Chicago who, in World War I, was one of the few Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military. Today, we’ll read his account of High Holiday services for Jewish soldiers, but the whole book is worth your time. This excerpt doesn’t fully convey the very personal, point-of-view style in which he shares his wartime experiences.
Here Rabbi Levinger writes of his work in Nevers, France, in the cool, gray autumn of 1918, the last year of the “War to End All Wars”:
…Many Americans were stationed in or near the city—railroad engineers, training camps of combat units newly arrived in France, construction engineers, quartermaster units, and two great hospital centers. Every company I visited, every ward in the hospitals, had at least a few Jewish boys, and all of them were equally glad to see me and to attend my services. In fact, my first clear impression in France was that here lay a tremendous field for work, crying out for Jewish chaplains and other religious workers, and that we had such a pitiful force to answer the demand. At that time there were over fifty thousand Jewish soldiers in the A. E. F. [American Expeditionary Forces] at a very conservative estimate, with exactly six chaplains and four representatives of the Jewish Welfare Board to minister to them. When I took up my work at Nevers, I was simply staggered by the demands made on me and my inability to fulfill more than a fraction of them.
At first came the sudden rush of men into the city for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The hotels filled up almost at once; then came others who could not find accommodations, and still others Continue reading