Memorial Day and Philadelphia Jewish Military History


By Paul Finkelman and Lance J. Sussman

This week we celebrate Memorial Day, to remember Americans who died in the service of their country. We also remember deceased veterans, who survived wars but are no longer with us.

Memorial Day became a holiday after the Civil War, commemorating those who died to save the nation and end slavery. It was originally called Decoration Day, as Americans literally decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers, wreaths, flags and other symbols of patriotism.

On this day, the Philadelphia Jewish community can pause to remember the service and sacrifices of our neighbors and relatives. From the Revolution to the present, Pennsylvania Jews have played a remarkable role in the American military.

In the 1970s and 1980s two Philadelphia rabbis — Bertram Korn and Aaron Landes — served as rear admirals in the Navy and headed the Naval Reserve Chaplain Corps. They were the first rabbis in the history of any branch of the military to be flag officers. They followed a long tradition of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Jews serving their country.

During the Revolution, Lt. Col. David Salisbury Franks of Philadelphia served on the staffs of a number of generals. At the time, he was the highest ranking Jewish officer in any western army.

In 1765, Philadelphian Matthias Bush signed the “non-important agreement” — joining other patriots in the city who refused to buy or sell British goods. This was one of the first steps on the road to the American Revolution.

When the war broke out a decade later, his son, Solomon Bush, served as a captain in a local militia unit. Bush fought in the Battle of Long Island, where he was promoted to the rank of major. In July 1777 the Pennsylvania government appointed him to be the deputy adjutant-general for the state militia. In September of that year, Maj. Bush was wounded close to home at the Battle of Brandywine. His brother, Capt. Lewis Bush, died in that battle.

While recovering from his wounds, Bush was promoted to lieutenant colonel. Captured by the British, he learned that there was a spy inside George Washington’s command. When the British released him, Bush conveyed his knowledge of the spy to Washington. While recovering from his wounds, Bush also contributed to building a new synagogue for Congregation Mikveh Israel.

During the War of 1812, another son of Mikveh Israel, Uriah Phillips Levy, joined the Navy. His tumultuous career included duels and court martials, usually related to Levy’s refusal to tolerate anti-Semitic insults. He eventually rose to the rank of captain — the equivalent of full colonel in the army — and was the highest ranking American Jewish officer until the Civil War.

He is most remembered for his long and ultimately successful campaign to abolish flogging in the Navy. But he is also remembered because in the 1830s he purchased the Monticello estate from the bankrupt Jefferson family, saving this historic home.

During the Civil War, Philadelphia Jews answered the call to preserve the nation.

In June 1862, 16-year-old Isaac Shnellenberg, a member of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, died in combat in Virginia. Elias Hyneman of Philadelphia died at the infamous Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. Nearly 700 other Jewish soldiers died during the war to preserve the union.

Col. Max Einstein led Philadelphia troops at the first Battle of Bull Run. He survived the war and is buried in Philadelphia. Jacob da Silva Solis-Cohen, from a distinguished Mikveh Israel family, was 23 when the war began. He served as a naval surgeon from 1861 to 1864 and later became one of the most important physicians in Philadelphia.

When the war began, only Protestant ministers were allowed to serve as military chaplains. Nevertheless, in July 1861, members of the 5th Pennsylvania Calvary — known as the Cameroon Dragoons in honor of the Secretary of War Simon Cameroon who was from Pennsylvania — elected Michael Allen to be their chaplain. Many Philadelphia Jews served in this unit, initially organized and led by Col. Max Friedman.

This experience with Philadelphia troops and a Jewish chaplain set the stage for the eventual rise of Rabbi Admiral Korn and Rabbi Admiral Landes to became the first and second Jewish heads of the chaplain corps in the Navy.

The Spanish-American War was short and few Jews served as the war itself involved relatively few Americans. But 15 Jewish cavalry men who rode with Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were wounded or died in the Charge at San Juan Hill, including the first fatality, Jacob Wilbusky of Texas. Shortly after the war, Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf of Keneseth Israel conducted a Shabbat service for them while inspecting the condition of troops in Cuba at the request of President William McKinley.

A few decades after the Civil War, massive numbers of Eastern European Jews came to the United States. In World War I and World War II, hundreds of thousands of Jews served in the military, and many became citizens through this service. About 225,000 Jewish men served in World War I, with about 3,500 giving their lives. In World War II more than half a million American Jews served, and at least 7,000 died in combat, including Gen. Maurice Rose, the highest ranking American officer killed in the war.

Symbolic of the integration of Jews into American culture was the self-sacrifice of Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, one of the “four chaplains” who, along with two Protestant ministers and one Catholic priest, gave their life jackets to soldiers aboard a sinking U.S. troop ship. They were last seen praying together as the ship went down.

At least 15,000 American Jews served in Korea, the “forgotten conflict.”

In Philadelphia, like other urban centers, Jews served in a greater proportion in World War II than most ethnic groups. Jewish officers became admirals and generals. Memorial plaques in synagogues throughout greater Philadelphia remind us of their sacrifices.

Marine Cpl. Roger Steven Briskin from Wynnewood, who graduated from Lower Merion High School, died in combat in Vietnam.

And the sacrifices have continued. Last month, Philadelphia buried Marine Capt. Samuel Schultz, who died in a helicopter crash. 

Paul Finkelman is the president of Gratz College, and Lance J. Sussman is the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and vice chair of Gratz’s board of governors.


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