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Local Rabbi Among Those Honored at Arlington

October 26, 2011 By:
Karen Wendkos | JE Feature
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Vets representing various Jewish War Veteran posts attended the memorial ceremony.

When David S. Engel heard of a proposal to establish a monument for fallen Jewish chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery, he immediately picked up the phone and called the director of the JWB's Jewish Chaplains Council and asked, "What can I do to help?"

As soon as he spoke with the director, retired Rear Admiral Harold Robinson, "this project became my greatest interest," said Engel, a Shelton, Conn., businessman.
Engel's father, Rabbi Meir Engel, who once served as rabbi of a a Northeast Philadelphia congregation, was among the 14 Jewish military chaplains who died while on active duty in the armed forces.
David Engel was in Washington on Monday at the unveiling of a memorial to the Jewish chaplains who died.
The new monument features a plaque inscribed with the names of the chaplains who died serving during World War II, the early years of the Cold War and in Southeast Asia.
The plaque made a brief stop at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia before heading to Washington.
It stands beside separate monuments honoring fallen Protestant and Catholic chaplains that have been present on Chaplains Hill since 1981 and 1989, respectively.
Lt. Col. Meir Engel was killed in Vietnam in 1964, the first and only Jewish chaplain at that time.
According to his son, the rabbi considered Philadelphia his home of record, having married a local woman and assuming the pulpit in 1937 at Temple Sholom in the Northeast.
But he believed his greatest impact would be as a military chaplain, which is why after being called back to duty for the Korean War, he decided to serve his country by remaining in the army.
David Engel was eager to share stories about his father. Only 20 at the time of his father's loss, he fondly recalls their close relationship.
"We talked about everything,'' said Engel. "Dad was open and honest. He wasn't afraid to say what was on his mind. I treasure those memories and our conversations.
"I remember he was very concerned about equality. If the neighbors had a large cross on display for Christmas, he'd be certain to have an equally large menorah. I remember our huge sukkah," he added with a smile.
Younger son, Rafael, only 8-years-old at the time of his father's death, has different memories of his dad.
"We didn't have grown-up conversations. It was mostly fun and games," recalled the graduate of Cheltenham High School, Gratz Hebrew High School and the University of Pennsylvania who now resides in Pittsburgh.
One of the rabbi's colleagues said that Engel had never wanted to serve during the Vietnam war.
"Meir did not volunteer to go to Vietnam," said friend Aryeh Lev. He was not happy that he had been ordered overseas and separated from his beloved family, he added.
But Lev said his colleague had "often counseled Jewish personnel under similar orders to obey" so he would have been truly uneasy about asking to avoid such a "hazardous assignment."
Another local take on the events in Washington is the story of a flag finding its way to a chaplain's widower.
Upon learning about the upcoming dedication to honor chaplains who died while on active duty, Beth Chernoff, who enrolled in ROTC at Temple University, and served in a military intelligence unit in Northeast Philadelphia in the 1980s, knew something was missing. She had read about Chana Timoner, the first female Jewish chaplain to serve on active duty in the armed forces.
Her name is not on the plaque with the other 14 chaplains honored at Chaplains Hill in Arlington National Cemetery on Monday because she had been medically discharged two months prior to her death in 1998, at age 46.
Still, Chernoff believed Timoner, who had served six years in the military, should be acknowledged in some way. The Cheltenham resident contacted Timoner's widower, Julian.
During the conversation, he revealed his desire to receive an American flag, as is customary at funerals of military personnel. He had never gotten one. Chernoff, a librarian by profession, put her research skills to use.
She arranged for a flag to be presented at a dinner preceding Monday's dedication ceremony for the fallen chaplains.
"Rabbi Timoner served six honorable years, often demonstrating skills that amazed her male counterparts." Chernoff said. "She brought kosher food to Fort Bragg, and at Christmas and Chanukah arranged for donations of needed clothing, toys and appliances so that enlisted men, women and families would have a happier holiday."
She was stationed in Korea, which is where she became ill and died shortly after returning home, said Chernoff, adding that she was "honored to have even a small role in this history-making event."

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