On Feb. 3, 1943, an aging luxury liner, the Dorchester, was struck by German torpedoes off the coast of Greenland. Most of the young servicemen packed aboard, headed for the war in Europe, died, but ’30 of them were rescued.
Among the 67′ dead were four chaplains, whose quick thinking, level-headedness, goodness, and pure heroism saved many of those ’30.
Among the four chaplains, like the army units in World War II movies, was one of almost everything a Catholic priest, a Methodist minister, a Dutch Reformed minister, and a rabbi. The four met at a training program at Harvard Divinity School and are said by the survivors, who watched them go down, to have linked arms as they stood together on the deck of the sinking ship.
The U.S. Marine Corps League gives an award in their names every year to people who embody the ideals of the four chaplains: people who contribute to their community’s sense of unity across religious, ethnic, and racial divides. Winners of the Legion of Honor Award of the Four Chaplains need not perform acts of spectacular, life-ending courage, but they must make a difference.
Al Frater and Karel Littman, both of Teaneck, shared this year’s award for their "continued compassion and interfaith work," according the organization’s press release. Frater, a former Marine, and Littman, director of Teaneck’s Economic Development Corporation and the Cedar Lane Management Group, have worked together on many projects. Most notably, they spearhead the town’s annual and very successful Toys for Tots program, which collects toys and money for needy children in time for the winter holidays.
Frater, who grew up in Brooklyn, enlisted in the Marines in 1963. "I always wanted to enlist; I am a very patriotic person," he said in an interview. American involvement in Vietnam had already begun but was on a small scale. In 1965, when the war widened, Frater was sent there. He trained as a radar technician; once he left the Marines he became an engineer.
"There weren’t a lot of Jews in the Marines," he said. "In 1963, when I was in boot camp in Parris Island, on Sunday they would have services. They brought in a rabbi on Sunday for us, and all the Jewish guys would have to go. There were probably about ‘0, ‘5 of us. On Rosh HaShanah they bused us to a synagogue in Savannah."
He’s been involved in the Marine Corps League for a long time through its local detachment, headquartered in New Milford. An active volunteer, among other things he is active in TOPS, the Teaneck Organization for Public Schools; visits veterans homes; works on Toys for Tots, and does whatever he can to help the local reserve troops; he also marches in parades on civil holidays. He belongs to Temple Emeth in Teaneck. He’s enormously energetic his friends, Frater said, call him the Energizer Bunny.
Littman, a lawyer, grew up in Teaneck and went to school there. A parent of two Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County students, she is also a longtime member of Cong. B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In both of her positions, which to some extent interlock, she works with "everyone in the community; it’s very diverse," she said. "The commercial business owners are a wide-ranging group of people, and I try to work with them sensitively.
"Toys for Tots is a national Marine program, and it’s a good one," she said. "The Marines stand outside on Cedar Lane in the freezing cold and collect money they got $500 from someone just passing by! and toys, and they give the toys to a lot of local charities to distribute. It goes to children of all religions."
She also moved the annual Cedar Lane festival to Memorial Day. "You can’t have a street festival on Saturday, and it’s hard on Sunday because the merchants can’t sell retail, but on Monday everybody can be open, and on Memorial Day everyone can be there," she said. "We acknowledge people who have served in the armed forces. Last year, we presented plaques to veterans in town; we tried to honor veterans from all the services, from all the wars. It was very poignant."
At the awards ceremony in Belvedere, the two were presented with pins. "It’s a star of David, with a small cross inside for unity," Littman said. "The star of David was more prominent than the cross. I was so surprised.
"Jews are figuring in this in ways that we usually don’t figure," she said. "We’re not usually incorporated into the military in this way. With the four chaplains, the Jewish guy is equally one of four, and that’s really cool."