William Roth, commander of Jewish War Veterans Furer-Barag-Wolf Post 126 in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, hosts monthly meetings Sundays at 9:30 a.m., always starting with bagels and cream cheese.
Although now back in person after a year-and-a-half of virtual meetings, things don’t feel the same.
Membership at Post 126 has dwindled this year, both because of new veterans disinterested in joining and old members dying. At its most popular, Roth said Post 126 had 300 members. It’s now plateaued at around 40-50.
Post 126 isn’t alone; other Jewish war veterans posts are struggling with maintaining membership, breaking the chains of generations of Jewish veterans who kept these fraternities alive.
Donald Feldman, commander of JWV Post 98 in Philadelphia, is the baby of his group — he’s 86. His father joined Post 98 as a World War II veteran; Feldman joined in 1960, having served in the Marines in 1954 and the Army from 1954-’62.
When Feldman joined the post, there were up to 60 members attending meetings; now, attendance is half of that.
Once 150 members strong, Pennsylvania Department Commander Richard Fine’s Philadelphia County Council JWV meetings now struggle to reach 15-20 members. His post also skews older, with many of the veterans, Fine included, serving during the Vietnam War. Two served in the
“They call me ‘the kid,’ and I’m 77 now,” Fine said.
The aging membership has posed a problem for the posts’ longevity. COVID hasn’t helped. Since the pandemic began, Post 126 lost 12 members, Roth said. Last month, Fine attended three funerals in as many weeks.
Recruiting younger veterans has proven challenging.
Post 126 used to hold meetings at night, but those who worked during the day were often too tired to attend. By moving meetings to Sunday morning, Roth hoped younger parents could drop off their children at religious school before heading to a meeting. So far, his plan hasn’t worked.
Post 98 is having similar problems. The post also just resumed in-person meetings, but Feldman wasn’t able to organize virtual meetings over the pandemic. When they invite younger veterans, they’ll attend one meeting but won’t return.
“They may be interested, but right now, they say hello and goodbye,” Feldman said.
Afghan veterans have “had enough of the military,” Feldman said.
“They want their own time and their own place and their own space,” he said.
Roth believes the younger generation just doesn’t prioritize posts. He didn’t join a post until after he was married. When his wife died, he became even more involved in the post to keep busy.
To bolster attendance, posts sometimes partner with surrounding synagogues, hoping to attract membership among congregants. Though Roth hasn’t found this to be helpful, Post 126 has partnered with the Katz Jewish Community Center, which allows the post to gather in its meeting room.
Though post commanders have made an effort to recruit younger veterans, they feel they can only do so much.
“It’s up to the individual,” Feldman said.
But one of the assets of going to post meetings is the profound empathy among its members, something well-suited for veterans of similar cohorts.
“Veterans don’t normally talk about their time in service and what they did unless they’re with other veterans,” Fine said. “Most civilians wouldn’t understand.”
When many of these veterans were serving, they experienced antisemitism.
Fine recalled not being able to eat the food in basic training because it wasn’t kosher. His rabbi wrote a letter asking for Fine to get separate, kosher rations during his three-year service in the Army. Fine received kosher food, but it cost him more than $4,000.
“I couldn’t feed myself on two dollars and 25 cents a day,” he said.
At another point, a Jewish friend of Fine, two weeks before he was shipped out, traveled to Atlanta with two friends, one of whom was Black. The hotel they were planning on staying at turned the party away, refusing to allow Black and Jewish guests to stay there.
Within the posts, there’s not just a desire to share the memories of times past, but also a reverence for the work of veterans, especially those who fought in unpopular wars, such as the Vietnam and Korean wars and those who were proudly Jewish in a time of robust antisemitism.
“We owe a good country to our veterans,” Feldman said.
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