Rabbi Lance Sussman has long harbored reverence for the Armed Forces and the role Jews have played in it. After all, his father and father-in-law served in World War II.
His interest guided many of his professional and intellectual pursuits: He earned a doctorate degree in American Jewish history from Hebrew Union College, and he often does programming at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
But it’s the plaque at Congregation Keneseth Israel memorializing all of the former congregants who died at war that’s piqued Sussman’s interest the most. He’s long wanted to dig deeper, to unearth the stories behind the names and dates.
With the help of a research team staffed by congregants, Sussman created a book dedicated to honoring those men: How the Mighty Have Fallen: Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel Veterans Memorial Book.
The book will be presented at KI on Nov. 9 during the synagogue’s Veterans Day Shabbat.
“We’re one synagogue, one congregation reflective of the larger American Jewish community, which has served us in many ways — including the military,” Sussman said. “It’s a lot of people from synagogue.”
In all, 24 KI congregants have died in service, dating to the Civil War and running through World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War.
There is one recent addition: Capt. Samuel A. Schultz, who died in a training session near El Centro, Calif., on April 3. The parents of the late Marine will be in attendance Nov. 9 when Sussman debuts the book.
“I thought it was my sacred duty to bring this forward and honor them,” Sussman said.
The idea for the book was hatched about five years ago, after years of Sussman reading over the names on the memorial plaque before beginning services.
Sussman and his team of researchers hunkered down in the synagogue’s archives room and pored through boxes of information. They searched through war records for tidbits about the former KI congregants, and when that didn’t work, they looked into old newspaper articles. Obituaries were helpful, Sussman said.
By the end of last spring, Sussman felt ready to start synthesizing the “critical mass of information” into the book. That’s where Joan Shrager came in.
“I’m the one that designed it and put it together,” Shrager said.
An artist by trade, Shrager has worked with Sussman on various projects since 2009. She often creates posters and PowerPoints for Sussman’s synagogue presentations.
She lent her expertise to How The Mighty Have Fallen, compiling photos and logos and placing them in the 58-page book.
Shrager holds a personal collection to the work. Rabbi Bertram W. Korn married her and her husband and later presided over her sons’ Bar Mitzvahs. Though he didn’t die in service, he earned a special mention in the book. In 1975, he was promoted to rear admiral in the Chaplains Corps, becoming the first Jewish chaplain to receive Flag Rank in any of the Armed Forces, according to Shrager.
“He was someone I knew personally,” she said.
Most of the others mentioned died in service — and died young.
The book “will tell the stories of their lives and their sacrifice,” Sussman said. “That way, when anyone comes in and has a question about soldier x or soldier y, I have an answer for them .
“A lot of them lost their lives at sea or other places and their bodies were not retrieved. They appear on various military monuments overseas, but in many ways the memorial plaque at [Keneseth Israel] constitutes their graves.”
The book will not be sold commercially. Instead it will be used as an educational and religious tool, available for purchase in the KI gift shop and in select libraries around the country interested in American Jewish history and the U.S. military.
Sussman hopes the book won’t require any additions, and that it’ll be consumed by KI congregants for generations to come. It’s impact will certainly not be lost on those that helped put it together.
“I read about them and it makes me cry,” Shrager said. “As a Jew, the anti-Semites have historically said we didn’t serve. But boy, did we serve, in the hundreds of thousands. And then to know right in my own synagogue, there were kids that went to war. That’s what they were. They were babies. They were teenagers. They were in their early 20s. And they went to war and died for us.”