For American Jews, Memorial Day should be more than hot dogs and sales at the mall. Jews have been serving in the American military even longer than there has been a United States of America.
The Revolutionary War
By 1776 and the War of Independence, around two thousand Jews lived in the 13 colonies, most of them originally from Spain and Portugal. They played an important role in the struggle for independence, including fighting against the British. The first Jew to die during the war was Francis Salvador. Jews also played a key role in financing the Revolution, with the most important of the financiers being Haym Solomon, a member of the New York branch of the Sons of Liberty. Solomon raised the money that allowed General Washington to defeat the British at Yorktown and win the war. And soon after the new nation was established, Simon M. Levy from Baltimore, Maryland, was appointed a cadet to the first class at the Military Academy of West Point in 1802.
The Civil War
During the American Civil War, approximately three thousand Jews fought on the Confederate side and seven thousand fought for the Union. Jews also played leadership roles on both sides, with nine Jewish generals and 21 Jewish colonels participating in the War. Judah P. Benjamin served as Secretary of State and acting Secretary of War of the Confederacy. Seligman Brothers, a banking firm, provided financial support to the Union Army during the war. The first Jewish chaplain, Jacob Frankel, was appointed by Presidential order on September 10, 1862. Until then, the military only appointed Christian clergy as chaplains.
World War I
By World War I, millions of Jews had immigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, and when war broke out, many of them enlisted to fight. In all, about 250,000 Jewish soldiers served in the United States military during that conflict, 40,000 of them volunteers. About 3,500 Jews were killed in action or died of wounds. Jews, who made up three percent of the United States population at the time, contributed five percent to the entire death roll of the U.S. Army. In 1917, the Jewish Welfare Board established centers for Jewish servicemen in the U.S. and overseas. It also led enlistment and fundraising campaigns for the war effort. That Jewish Welfare Board later became JCC Association. Today, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council endorses military chaplains and provides spiritual and morale support to Jewish men and women in the armed forces.
World War II to Vietnam
In World War II, a half million American Jews fought to free Europe from the Axis—that was half of all the Jewish men eligible to serve. About 60 percent of all Jewish physicians young enough to serve were in the service.
Approximately 150,000 Jewish Americans saw service during the Korean War, and about 30,000 Jewish Americans served In Vietnam. Among them was Major General Ben Sternberg. Colonel Jack H. Jacobs was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam.
Indeed, 21 American Jews have received the highest military distinction for their actions, three of them posthumously, since the Medal of Honor was instituted during the Civil War. A 1993 study determined that discrimination affected the awarding of medals. In 2005, Tibor Rubin, who many believed to have been overlooked because of his race and religion, received the Medal of Honor.