Community Honors Jewish Veterans Through History and Legacy


Paul Newman has been spent the past decade fighting a battle that far too many of us don’t even know is being waged.

The Lower Merion resident wants to make sure that the contributions of Jewish military veterans are not only recognized, but celebrated by the community on Veterans Day.
Accordingly, Newman’s house of worship, Lower Merion Synagogue, has been hosting a Veterans Day Kiddush for about 15 years, in which poster boards display the history of veterans who belonged to the congregation.
The members who started this project, whom Newman called members of the “greatest generation,” passed on the job to him. What started as about 10 pictures of veterans has grown to more than 30 posters illustrating the history of Jewish involvement in the military, and this year will include about 20 poster boards telling the stories of about 100 local veterans and their families from throughout the community.
He also wrote a history of Jews in the American military from 1654 to today and a display depicting how Jews have maintained their Judaism from those earliest years onward.
“There were a few Jews fighting with George Washington, continued through the War of 1812, through the Civil War and on to today,” he added. “You can see Jews trying to become part of the country.”
Newman never served in the military, but many people close to him did, including his father, brother and close friend.
“We don’t usually think of Jews as military,” he said, “but there is a strong sense of giving back to the country that obviously every other group in this country has; for Jews this country has been fantastic.”
The Veterans’ Day Kiddush will take place at Lower Merion Synagogue on Nov. 14. Another, smaller display will be held at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood on Nov. 7. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park will also host its own Veterans’ Day Shabbat on Nov. 13.
Gen. Robert Magnus, the highest-ranking Jew in the U.S. Marine Corps as of his retirement in 2008, will be speaking at the service. He will also be speaking twice at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Nov. 12 to both young students and adults.
Magnus enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1964 when he was a junior in high school. He graduated from the University of Virginia’s ROTC program with scholarships from the Navy, but “I graduated in 1969 and had decided along the way that I would rather be a Marine,” he said.
By 1971, Magnus received his wings as a pilot and went into the Marine Corps as a helicopter pilot. He served in the Vietnam War as a combat search-and-rescue helicopter pilot based out of Thailand in 1973.
At Keneseth Israel, Magnus will be speaking about the conflicts in the Middle East and different perspectives about them, including his own American point of view and those of his Israeli friends.
“My military experience helps reflect on that because I spent the last eight years of my service in the Pentagon as we went through eight years of war against people whose faith made us their enemies,” he said.
Magnus spent 39 years in the Marine Corps. Although most Jewish mothers expect their children to be lawyers, doctors or dentists, Magnus said he’s proud to break the stereotype. Magnus, also a member of the Jewish War Veterans, said being Jewish in the military was actually an advantage.
“If anything, it was helpful in the sense that when I was part of a Jewish congregation on a base, I was able to help the congregation because I was a senior officer and most of the Jewish personnel were either family or enlisted marines. I was essentially treated completely fairly and my fellows were basically colorblind in the sense of religion.”
According to Newman, about 1 percent of the military includes Jews since it became voluntary in 1973. And today, about 1,600 Jews are serving in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, in addition to being stationed at bases around the world.
Newman added that more than 500,000 Jewish men and women joined or responded to the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. Eli Fatow was one of them.Fatow was drafted in 1943 at age 18, and he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps for three-and-a-half years during the war, deployed in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
“I damn near got my draft notice and my high school diploma at the same time,” he laughed.
Fatow spent 21 days on a ship to get to North Africa. He kept stored in his box of letters a handwritten calendar he wrote and sent to his mother briefly explaining each day on the ship; some were labeled as “good” or “sick.”
After North Africa, he was sent to Sicily and then spent two-and-a-half years in Italy “working up and down, from the bottom of the toe up.”
Fatow served as a troop carrier, dropping food and supplies from planes and helping transport wounded soldiers.
“I was pretty much the only Jew in my division,” he said.
He was quick to point out that he never saw combat, but occasionally witnessed it from afar, flying over Southern France and Greece.
“I was never in actual combat, I was over combat,” which he preferred. There was still a risk being part of the carrier crew. He said some planes got shot down. “I wasn’t exactly happy when I was drafted,” he joked, “but looking back, I’m glad I went through it — and I’m glad I’m out of it.”
Fatow had a display of his own laid out on his kitchen table, full of tattered and aged mementos from his travels in the army, including letters, magazines, maps, pictures and newspaper clippings overlapping each other.
He is humble about his time in the army, saying, “I just did my job and I came home.” He seemed prouder to say that his late wife arranged his badges on the bookshelf than about the badges themselves.
Fatow received five Bronze Stars for his time in the military. But they are just memories to look back on now. One of those memories stood out from the others.
When Fatow got to Rome, he and a few other soldiers went to Vatican City. They were walking around the city when a Swiss Guard approached them and said, “The pope would like to see you.”
Pope Pius XII welcomed them into his private office, chatted with them and wished them luck.
“I was just part of the action,” he humbly kidded. “I’m glad that I’m home, I’m glad that I have children.”
Fatow grew up in Philadelphia and now lives in Havertown. He is a member of the Jewish War Veterans and even had the opportunity to travel to Arlington National Cemetery in May for an Honor Flight ceremony.
He will be 91 this month, around the same time his 10th great-grandchild will be born. He also has three children and six grandchildren.
Although modest, it is clear that he is proud of his legacy for other reasons.
When asked if he’s prouder of his family than his time in the war, he said, “You’re darn right.”
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