When Rabbi Ira Kronenberg served as chaplain to Jewish soldiers back in the 1970s, those in uniform did not receive a lot of respect.
“Most Americans couldn’t separate politics from the individual soldier,” said Kronenberg, a retired army colonel who spent 37 years in the United States military. “Now, even those who are more to the left politically can separate anti-war feeling from (feelings toward) the soldiers” and reach out to them as individuals.
Throughout his career, the rabbi, a resident of Passaic and religious director of Daughters of Miriam Center-The Gallen Institute in Clifton, has counseled Jewish soldiers stateside and abroad, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When he first began his service, at Fort Riley in Kansas, “I was the only rabbi in the entire area,” he said, explaining that the base “was in the middle of nowhere. We probably had 130 to 200 Jewish families,” he recalled. “There were still people being drafted.”
For the next 27 years he served as a reserve chaplain, working with the New Jersey National Guard as well as units in New York. In 2003 – as reserve soldiers began to be tapped for overseas service – he was once again called up for active duty.
“I got soldiers spiritually ready to leave their families,” said Kronenberg, whose training as a licensed clinical social worker came in handy. “I also saw them when they returned, to help them reintegrate.”
Between 2003 and 2008, Kronenberg was sent overseas five times to lead holiday services in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving groups from 60 soldiers “to a handful.” In one case, he said, he made a special trip to visit one soldier who couldn’t leave his base in Iraq because of an impending invasion.
“He was from Fair Lawn,” said Kronenberg, “and he had a yahrzeit for his father.”
The chaplain said that while all soldiers have the same needs on returning home, the situation is slightly different for Jewish veterans.
“Generally, Jews are not big supporters of the military,” he said. “So while a non-Jewish soldier returning home in, say, South Carolina, is likely to be enthusiastically greeted by his church and community, Jewish soldiers don’t generally get that kind of reception.”
Kronenberg said he came to realize over the years that the Jewish War Veterans is held in high esteem, ironically “getting more kavod” from non-Jews than from Jews themselves.
While members of JWV posts tend to be older, having served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, “we encourage the young kids who come back to join,” said Kronenberg.
“We need to show support, to get Jewish soldiers out of the woodwork,” he said. “Being overseas is difficult. It affects people when they get back. It affects everything.”
The rabbi said that in addition to encouraging veterans to join JWV, synagogues should follow the model of congregations that sponsor a veterans Shabbat.
“They do it in South Jersey” he noted. “It’s dedicated to veterans – the sermon, kiddush, readings.”
“It’s most important for soldiers to know that they have support,” he said, “that people don’t think they’re stupid or went over because they were brainwashed.”
Clifton resident Bob Cirkus, a Vietnam veteran and former state JWV commander, said he hasn’t seen much outreach from the Jewish community to veterans.
Cirkus, who recalls a holiday observance in Vietnam led by a chaplain and shared with five or six other Jews, said he was prompted by his wife to “get out of the house” when he returned from the war.
“I went down to Passaic where there is a post. They opened up their arms and took me in,” he said.
Cirkus, the commander of post no. 47, said that the Jewish War Veterans is the oldest veterans organization in the United States.
Jewish veterans “have the same problems everyone else does,” he said, pointing out that JWV “continues to lobby politicians to [provide] veterans with the health care they were promised.” He explained that when people enlist in the military, they are assured “that they will be taken care of for the rest of their lives.”
Yet, he said, that does not happen.
Traumatic brain injuries are being seen in “very big numbers,” said Cirkus, noting that soldiers’ survival rates are greater today than they were in past wars. That means, he explained, that the number of returning wounded soldiers is higher.
There have also been much higher rates of military suicides.
“There’s a higher concentration of National Guard and reservists going into military,” he said. “That’s not meant to be. They come home after being away from their family a year at a time. And it’s not just once or twice. I know someone getting reading for his fifth tour.”
In addition to putting a strain on family life, “a large majority of these people are losing their jobs,” even though, according to the federal government, employers cannot penalize employees for military service, he said. “Every day they’re losing their houses – they can’t pay their mortgages. People fall through the cracks.”
The veteran pointed out that what happened after Vietnam, when returning veterans were greeted with disrespect, “will never happen again.”
“Now they’re treated like heroes; it’s the right thing to do,” he said, adding that he has seen veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam “shoulder to shoulder” with newly returned soldiers to show solidarity.
Among other things, said Cirkus, president of the Jewish Memorial Chapel in Clifton, the JWV has prompted the Veterans Administration to provide new soldiers with packets of information telling them what benefits they’re entitled to.
Cirkus said he thinks “it’s a great thing that synagogues are doing,” sending packets of supplies to soldiers overseas.
“One of the greatest things any organization can do is to let those over there know that we are constantly thinking of them,” he said. “I will cross the street to personally thank veterans for their service.”