Our history is filled with tales of decrees conscripting Jews, often young children to fight in the local ruler’s wars. From Russia to Poland, to the Ottoman Empire, local folklore preserved numerous tales of those committed to their faith who under threat of death or torture persisted in their attempts to keep Judaism alive even in the harshest conditions. Many a young Jew had their names changed, escaped the country or self-inflicted disqualifying wounds to avoid the draft.
Even without the blatant antisemitism ever present in armies such as the Czar’s military, a Jewish soldier who attempted to keep the mitzvot found it a near-impossible feat. A cache of documents I acquired this week tells of the efforts of a group that during World War II founded the organization Sabbath Observers in Civil Service to defend and support those in the U.S. Military who were Sabbath observant. Led by Mr. Abraham Goldstein and Miss Gertrude N. Zavin, members of Radio City Synagogue in New York City, the letters tell of the many scenarios and correspondences they attempted to assist with, with varying degrees of success.
One letter from the Dept. of the Navy dated Nov 11, 1942, states: “It is the desire of your committee that the records of persons who were suspended for absence on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, be cleared. I regret to inform you that this cannot be given favorable consideration. I think you will agree with me that this matter was a difficult one to deal with and that when the war effort could be furthered by the observance of regular working hours on these Holy Days … it has to be done in the interest of National Security…”
Another letter dated August 19, 1943 was sent to the Veterans Administration in New York. “Mildred Steinberg and Elaine Feldman, employees at your branch, have been requested to resign if they do not intend to start working on Saturday. It is with deep regret that we, and the other Orthodox Jewish Organizations, learned of this. These girls are willing to make up the time lost, or lose pay for the time lost or to make any other equitable arrangement possible just as long as they be able to observe their Sabbath in accordance with the precepts of their faith….”