How many generations have come to think of Memorial Day as the first day of summer and Veterans Day as another theme for a sale? Veterans know better. 

Did you know?  Jewish War Veterans (JWV) is America’s oldest Veteran Service Organization.  Chartered in 1896, Jewish War Veterans of the USA specifically was organized to dispel the belief that Jews did not serve in the military to protect our nation.

Fact: Jews have fought among the ranks of the military since the American War of Independence and they continue to serve around the world in the Global War on Terrorism. 

Fact: Today, there are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 known Jewish servicemen and servicewomen in active duty out of approximately 1.3 million (just under 1%) in the US Armed Forces. That number has remained stable, and close to the percentage of Jews in the general US population – about 2%.

“Our continuity in the military is our version of L’Dor V’dor, from one generation to the next,” says Dr. Edward H. Hirsch, Colonel U.S. Army Special Forces (Retired) and Commander, JWV of the USA, Department of Michigan. “For that long history of service, regardless of when, where or for whatever length of time, we have our veterans to thank.”

A Jewish Voice for Veterans, a Veteran’s Voice for Jews

In Michigan, JWV maintains a small, but steadfast membership – approximately 150 veterans strong, concentrated in Oakland County and currently split into three Posts – 135 (2d LT Raymond Zussman), 474 (PFC Joseph L. Bale) and 510 (Charles Shapiro-MG Maurice Rose). “Our goal is to let people know we’re still an active service organization, and here for good,” says Donald Schenk, Brigadier General U.S. Army (Retired) and JWV Michigan Chief of Staff (the Department’s Chief Operating Officer). “We may be most visible in Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies and parades, but what we really want the community to know is that we’re here to serve in many capacities. JWV exists to advocate for the needs of veterans, to strengthen the ties that connect Jewish veterans to the community and to continue our service and good work through educational and volunteer activities in the greater Detroit area, throughout the state of Michigan and nationally.”

Fact: JWV of Michigan is actively recruiting members.

With membership of JWV of Michigan mostly comprised of WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War era veterans, a primary aim of the organization is to identify and reach out to the broader community of veterans who can benefit from its resources. “We have a core group of 50 whom we see for programs on a monthly basis,” observes Schenk. “Typically, veterans don’t come to us until the end of their life. But now we’re looking for those veterans who have honorably served, sitting in the back of the synagogue, so to speak, to come forward to take advantage of JWV membership and the veteran and military benefits which are their due. Our aim is also to support family members of veterans whose loved ones may have passed on.” 

Though much of the work entails helping veterans and their families negotiate the labyrinth of the Department of Veteran Affairs to help ensure that their records are in order for end of life benefits, JWV of Michigan also is involved in advocacy for better clinics, hospitals, veterans homes and Michigan veteran-friendly legislation. Volunteers, including the Women’s Auxiliary, also support veterans’ facilities and local veteran activities, and maintain veteran plots in local Jewish cemeteries.

The Next Gen Connection: Building a Volunteer Corps

As Hirsch explains, the barrier to JWV membership is relatively low, less than $70 a year. Any Jewish member of the military, whether on active duty or retired, is eligible for JWV.  And, Hirsch emphasizes, membership is not limited to those who have served in direct combat. The door is open to military academy cadets and ROTC cadets and midshipmen enrolled in a pre-commissioning program at one of the state’s several ROTC programs.  Additionally, both Hirsch and Schenk know there are veterans enrolled in colleges and universities who may not have explored the benefits of membership in JWV.

Ready for the long-term challenge of attracting and engaging younger members, JWV of Michigan is currently recruiting veterans to replenish its corps of volunteers. “We’re at a tipping point,” says Schenk, “We’re an organization with a proud legacy. Through outreach programs in partnership with local synagogues, JCC, Jewish Family Service, National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Yad Ezra, the Holocaust Memorial Center and others, our aim is to enlist veterans as volunteers to fulfill our mission of service to our community, sharing our stories, combating anti-Semitism and celebrating those who have given their last full measure of devotion to our country.

JWV is also in the process of rejuvenating its Women’s Auxiliary and building its support network of friends, spouses and patrons – those who may not have served in the military, but who share a spot in their hearts for veterans.

Next up: Veteran Volunteers Dates to Mark on the Calendar

  • Veterans’ Shabbat at Congregation Shaarey Zedek and B’nai Israel, November 9, 2019 
  • Veterans Day, November 11, 2019   
  • Veterans’ Shabbat at Temple Shir Shalom, November 16, 2019
  • Annual Trip to Battle Creek VA Medical Center, December 25, 2019
  • Yom HaShoah, April 20, 2020 – Holocaust Memorial Day at the Holocaust Memorial Center
  • V-E Day, May 8, 2020 (May 9 in Israel) – The 75th Anniversary of the Allied Victory in World War II will be commemorated around the world.
  • Veteran Volunteers at Yad Ezra – pack and distribute kosher food boxes to older adults
  • Veteran Volunteers at NCJW – calling drivers for Meals on Wheels

 Visit www.jwv-mi.org for more information and events to come.

Sharing Their Stories

Noting that their stories come to life beyond the archives of their military records, here are two brief, but remarkable, recaps of Colonel Ed Hirsch’s career in the Dental Corps and Special Forces and Brigadier General Donald Schenk’s 40-plus years in the military- (excerpted and reposted here from articles written by Alan Muscovitz for the Detroit Jewish News,  4/26/2018 and 11/08/2018.

Dr. Edward Hirsch: a JWV commander today, a distinguished Army officer first

 “I was an Army officer first, who also happened to be a dentist.” That was the humble way Col. Edward Hirsch, D.D.S., described his service to his country. While he would use his profession in the Army, the leadership skills he exhibited so impressed his superior officers that he was often assigned responsibilities away from the dental chair. Ed received dangerous counterinsurgency and intelligence assignments, details of which he’s not permitted to share to this day.

During a tour of duty in Vietnam with Special Forces in 1970, Ed caught the attention of the commander of military operations and future Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Creighton Abrams, who reassigned him as a team leader in Special Operations.

During that same tour of duty, Ed would be on the receiving end of his third battle-related injury when, on an airboat in South Vietnam, he took a hit from an RPG (rocket propelled grenade). A traumatic leg injury landed him in Walter Reed Hospital for 9½ months and earned him his third Purple Heart.

Ed was introduced to service to one’s country at a young age. Born in Jersey City, N.J., Ed’s father, the son of Lewis and Fannie Hirsch, served during both WWI and WWII as an aviation mechanic and member of the Coast Guard.

1958 would be a pivotal year for Ed. He married Shirley, 82, now his bride of 60 years, after his first year of dental school at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.Early in their marriage, Shirley volunteered with the Red Cross, applying the med-tech background she received from West Virginia University. In the early 1970s, she was Chief of Army Community Services while her husband was stationed in Hawaii.

His skills led Ed to became part of the Army’s elite Special Forces, more popularly known as the Green Berets, which included jump school training and tours of duties with airborne groups from North Carolina to the Panama Canal Zone and Vietnam. “There’s not many meshuggenah dentists that would jump out of perfectly good airplanes … 129 jumps to be exact,” Ed said.

The “dentist” was even asked to assist surgeons in removing shrapnel. That happened on his very first night in Vietnam on the grounds of a Special Forces unit. “There was only one surgeon in our unit, and he called upon my ability and dexterity with my hands to help in the procedures,” Ed said.

Dr. Edward H. Hirsch in Vietnam on July 15, 1970, the day he was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade / Detroit Jewish News

Beyond his three Purple Hearts – and among his 26 military awards and decorations that include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and the Air Medal – Ed was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s highest honor, given to those who have “displayed valor in the face of the enemy, often courageously facing overwhelming odds with devotion, especially to their fellow soldiers.”

In his role as JWV commander, Ed knows he has a battle of a different kind to face. “We are fighting a war of attrition,” he said. “Our membership is aging, but I’m committed to do everything in my power to maintain the rich legacy that is our state’s JWV department for generations to come.”

Brig. Gen. Donald Schenk: “Home is where the Army sends me.”

Born and raised in Baltimore, MD, Don Schenk grew up in what he described as a “non-observant Protestant household” and, while in high school, had every intention of becoming a teacher. Today, at 69, he is a convert to Judaism and a retired, highly decorated Army brigadier general.

Schenk’s faith and career paths began converging in an intensive college preparatory curriculum at a Baltimore magnet school where, he said, “most of my peers were Jewish and those peers became my friends.” He completed his bachelor’s degree at Western Maryland College in Westminster, MD with the help of an Army ROTC scholarship, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in Armor (tank corps) in 1971. He was later educated at several military schools and earned a Masters’ degree in management from Central Michigan University.

Donald F. Schenk, JWV Michigan Chief of Staff

He attributes his “real introduction to Judaism” to his wife, Janet (Greenspan), of 30 years and their decision to raise their children in a Jewish household. “Taking our boys to Congregation Shir Tikvah, participating in family and adult learning and worship in preparation for our sons’ bar mitzvahs, made me realize that conversion was the logical culmination of experiences I first encountered in high school.” Today the couple are members of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.

Schenk has held assignments during peace and war, including direct combat operations in Iraq. Before he retired in 2004 after 35 years of service, equally balanced between the operational Army and the procurement/program management business of the Army, Schenk received numerous decorations including a Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star, to name a few.

Got a veteran’s story to share? Reach out to the Jewish War Veterans at webmaster@jwv-mi.org or to the JWV Chief of Staff at ChiefofStaff@jwv-mi.org

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