Paramus resident Albert Nahum, commander of the Bergen County Council of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, understands why military veterans wait years before joining a veterans organization.
"When you finish your [military] service, you’re more concerned about getting back to civilian life and earning a living," he said. "Later on, when you start to mellow and reflect on your youth, you join an organization."
According to Nahum, this might explain why the great majority of JWV members are veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict, with a smaller percentage having served in Vietnam. He is not surprised that veterans of more recent wars have not yet joined a veterans group. If they ever do join, he suggests, it will happen many years after they have left the military.
The five JWV posts in the Bergen County area based in New Milford, Teaneck, Paramus, Fort Lee, and Fair Lawn embrace more than 1,000 members, most of them older than 70, he said, noting that this reflects the demographics of other veterans groups as well. "Our ranks are dwindling," he said. "The basis of most veterans groups is World War II veterans, and they’re disappearing."
Norman Kailo, commander of Kaufman-Harris-Wayne Post #695, at the rededication of the war monument transported from Temple Emanuel in Paterson to the YM-YWHA in Wayne. He is accompanied by Ernest Kaufman, nephew of Reuben Kaufman the first Jewish Paterson resident killed in World War I for whom the post was named.
Lakewood resident Robert Jacobs, a Vietnam veteran and the JWV department (state) commander for New Jersey, confirmed that of the group’s 3,300 members in this state, most fought in World War II or in Korea.
"Most veterans don’t want to be involved until they need something, or discover they have military-related health problems," said Jacobs. "When you’re young and healthy, you think you can conquer the world. You don’t want to hear about the [Veterans Administration]. But as you get older, you start to feel your mortality. That’s when people begin to join these organizations."
According to Jacobs, the great majority of JWV members are male. Norman Kailo, commander of Kaufman-Harris-Wayne Post #695, reported that while only one of his 100 members is a woman, a Navy veteran, the group is well aware of women’s contributions to the American armed forces. Each year, he said, the post brings one or two exhibits from the Washington, D.C.-based National Museum of American Jewish Military History to the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne. A recent exhibit was entitled "Women in the Military: A Jewish Perspective," citing the accomplishments of American military women.
Noting that "some people would say we get too much and others would say we don’t get enough," Nahum said the main advantage of joining a veterans group is that "it gives us clout to handle issues of concern to veterans and to our nation. It gives us a political voice." Working with state and national veterans organizations, he said, the Bergen County group has helped lobby for benefits such as satellite clinics for veterans and reduced costs for prescription drugs.
Jacobs said that all veterans groups have a common agenda: to get the government to acknowledge its debt to those who carry the burden of battle. "But despite all the banners saying ‘Support the Troops,’ it’s often just lip service," he said, noting that each year, leaders of veterans groups visit Washington to educate members of Congress about veterans’ needs.
According to Jacobs, a big issue right now is mandatory funding the request that a minimum amount be set aside in the budget each year as a starting point for veterans’ benefits. Right now, said Jacobs, "the V.A. starts each year at zero, begging for every dollar it gets." The situation of veterans "could be a lot better," he said.
Besides giving members a sense of "comradeship," said Kailo, veterans groups also "give them the feeling that they can serve again." Members of his post pay monthly visits to a veterans hospital in Morris County and sponsor parties before major holidays. In addition, he said, they send "care packages" to service personnel and travel by bus to West Point each year to hold an oneg Shabbat for Jewish cadets.
Nahum himself a World War II veteran (like his two brothers and all his male cousins, he said) accords special importance to Veterans Day. He recalls that when he was a child attending a New York City public school, he and his classmates observed a moment of silence beginning precisely at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, while a Boy Scout blew taps.
This year, he noted, the Jewish contingent of the Paramus Veterans Council will be unable to attend the town’s annual Veterans Day service held at Memorial School in Paramus. "It’s in [the JWV] charter that we don’t participate in activities on the Sabbath," he said. State commander Jacobs told The Jewish Standard that this year, JWV posts were asked to urge their various towns to move observance of the day to Sunday, so that Jewish groups could participate. Some towns obliged, he said, others did not. Nor did the federal government, which, he said, refused to reschedule its annual observance at Arlington Cemetery, despite the fact that several prominent national veterans’ leaders are Jewish and cannot attend.
Nahum believes that Jewish War Veterans has an important mission, in addition to championing the rights of all veterans. "We try to impress upon the public that a lot of Jews served in World War II," he said. "About 16 million served in the military [during that war] out of a population of 130 million. That included 600,000 Jews, out of a Jewish population of 6 million."
Kailo added that ‘,’4′ Jews from the Greater Paterson area served in World War II. In addition, he said, more than 51,000 Jews were listed as casualties during the war, with 11,000 dying in combat, and some 5’,000 awards for valor were presented to Jewish veterans.
"Jewish War Veterans is the oldest continuous active veterans organization in the nation," said Jacobs. "It was founded in 1896 to counter criticism that Jews didn’t serve in the Civil War."
In December, the Wayne post spearheaded the relocation and rededication of a monument formerly housed at Temple Emanuel in Paterson, bearing a plaque engraved with the names of 30 Jewish soldiers from the Paterson area who fought and died in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. According to organizers, the event "served as an affirmation of Jewish service in America’s armed forces in all of America’s conflicts."