Nelson Mellitz Elected Commander of Jewish War Veterans

Nelson Mellitz (Photo by Lou Michaels)

Nelson Mellitz, 74, is a man defined by commitment.

He’s been married to his wife Debbie Markowitz Mellitz for 42 years, and they have two daughters. He served in the Air Force for 32 years, including during the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and retired as a colonel, according to a news release about his career from Jewish War Veterans of the USA.

And since the early 1990s, he has continued his “family’s 80-year legacy,” per the release, of helping JWV fulfill the mission that is self-evident in its name. Over the past three decades, the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, resident has helped Jewish veterans through a variety of leadership roles within JWV, including national chief of staff, department of New Jersey commander and others.

And now he is stepping up to lead the national organization in its top rank of national commander. JWV announced Mellitz’s unanimous election at its 127th National Convention in Savannah, Georgia, on Aug. 11. Mellitz will serve in the position for one year.

His goals as the leader of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization will be to fight antisemitism, support Israel and communicate with federal, state and local leaders about helping veterans.

Mellitz said the JWV should play a major role in helping to fight antisemitism on campuses because there are thousands of veterans at universities. He also wants to build relationships with soldiers as they return home because returning service members are often unsure about how to access state and federal benefits. As for supporting Israel, he said it’s important for Jews to do that “wherever the opportunity presents itself.”

JWV was formed in 1896 by Jewish Civil War veterans who wanted to disprove the rumor that Jews never served. That, Mellitz explained, was the rumor at the time. He sees it as his duty to play a similar role today.

“We’re going to be showing where antisemitism exists, how to knock it down,” he said.

Mellitz grew up in Philadelphia’s Oxford Circle neighborhood and graduated from Northeast High School. Though he had a bar mitzvah, his commitment to Judaism started in earnest at 22. Mellitz’s father had just died, and his grandfather, Morris Mellitz, came over to his house to tell him they were going to synagogue.

They went to the now-defunct Beth Emeth Congregation and kept going, week after week. Today, the veteran remains a synagogue member but at Congregation Beth El, a Conservative shul in Voorhees, New Jersey.

As he explained, “I believe in God and Judaism.”

After coming home from his tour of duty during the Vietnam War — in which he served but not in Vietnam itself — Mellitz started to see the importance of helping fellow veterans. He had friends committing suicide or ending up on the street. Many did not know where to go for federal Veterans Administration (now Veterans Affairs) benefits. Some also did not have families for support.

Mellitz tried to help veterans he knew who were living on the streets of Philadelphia. He took them to the VA office, but “back then they didn’t help people very much,” he said. So, it fell on Mellitz to give them money, food and even socks.

“The big thing they ask for is socks,” he said. “There just wasn’t much of a support network.”

That was why, later in life, Mellitz tried to become his own support network. With other JWV members, he started taking annual trips to Capitol Hill to talk to representatives and senators about the needs of veterans.

Over the past year, he helped successfully lobby for the PACT Act, an expansion of benefits to veterans dealing with toxic exposure. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law earlier this month.

“Commander Mellitz and myself were integral pieces in speaking up for the JWV in many different ways,” said Ken Greenberg, the national executive director of JWV. “It’s a major win for veterans no matter what area you served in.”

According to Mellitz, the VA system has improved a lot in the past few decades and continues to get better. But the necessity of offering practical help to veterans remains.

Mellitz said he wants “a welcome home for every military member that comes home after being deployed.” He also plans on working with Our Community Salutes, a nonprofit with a chapter in Cherry Hill, to host an informational dinner about benefits and important contacts for high school graduates who have enlisted in the military.

“In the United States of America, we have the resources to help these people,” Mellitz said. JE

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