You can take a veteran out of the service, but you can't take the service out of the veteran. This is the message of the Jewish War Veterans (JWV), an organization dedicated to helping veterans continue to serve their country and community after being discharged.
In return, members receive the support of their fellow Jewish vets. Being discharged is less an ending than a new beginning. Often, the best people for helping veterans adjust are those who have been there themselves.
A national program since 1896, JWV's mission is to "support veterans in VA hospitals, uphold the name of the Jew, preserve memories of service, honor our heroic dead, and foster the education of service members."
The national-level JWV, supported by JUF, distributes funds, offers benefits, and organizes national efforts such as disaster relief.
In the Chicago area, JWV has branches called "posts," which reflect the distribution of the local Jewish community. Collectively, these posts have some 400 members.
But, say its leaders, there are many more Jewish vets who still lack the services JWV can provide -- and JWV needs an infusion of new recruits if it will continue to be able to provide those services. One of the main tasks of JWV now is outreach to those who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and other more recent conflicts. "We need to try to instill," said Commander Robert Nussbaum, "a sense of patriotism and national community."
At a meeting of JWV post commanders in December, the reason was clear; the youngest vets in the room served in Vietnam, and most of the rest -- including David Haymes, a member since 1963 now planning his 101st birthday -- served in World War II.
The meeting was held at the Weinstein & Piser Funeral Home in Wilmette; its Community Service Director, Marshall Kayman, is a JWV member. The lobby holds an exhibit of flags and uniforms testifying to the part Jews have played in the defense of America.
On the day of the meeting, an honor guard was in the funeral home's lobby, there to participate in the funeral of a veteran. Kayman noted that his funeral home also participates in a program called We Honor Veterans, which provides free burials for homeless and indigent veterans.
JWV wants to make it clear that, relative to our percentage of the American populace, Jews do serve in America's military proudly. "I'm glad I served," said Haymes. Kayman pointed out that, during World War II, Jews were some 3 percent of America's population, and 4 percent of its military.
While JWV is itself a non-profit, a much of the discussion at the meeting revolved around other philanthropies. Some held events that JWV was invited to, from dinners for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Friends of the IDF to Veteran's Day at synagogues and Pearl Harbor Day at Soldier Field.
JWV arranges transportation for nursing-home residents to visit the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. They also support Toys for Tots, and an effort to establish a Gulf War memorial in Washington, D.C.; Jewish Eagle Scouts receive certificates from JWV at their ceremonies.
JWV also hosts its own citywide meetings and parties, and bingo nights and holiday celebrations at VA hospitals. They offer information at gatherings like JUF's Israel Solidarity Day, the Greater Chicago Jewish Folk Arts Festival, and the Illinois State Fair. And they plan outings, like a trip to a private military-memorabilia museum in Michigan.
One fight the veterans still face is anti-Semitism. They discuss events both historic and personal. For Jews who fought for American values, such memories are ever-present.
Another issue is real estate. A "Fisher House" is an apartment-like facility that hosts patients' families at VA hospitals, and whose property must abut its hospital. JWV is helping a local Fisher House gain an easement to meet this requirement.
Aside from the national entity, the local JWV also participates in group of other, similar veterans' organizations based on their members' religion or nationality. And JWV consults with city and state veteran-related departments.
Part of JWV's mission is to honor the dead. They attend funerals of their fellow Jewish vets, gather volunteers to place flags on their graves on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, and even own several burial plots reserved for those vets who cannot afford their own.
And then there are the less formal, but no less important, functions of the JWV. Once a week, several of its older, single members gather at one of their homes for dinner, just to be together with others who understand.
JUF Executive Vice President Jay Tcath is a JWV Life Member (U.S. Army captain, retired). "American Jews have always played a meaningful role in our beloved country's armed forces," he said, "serving in every theatre, in times of war and peace. There is a special bond, a kinship among Jewish soldiers that perseveres long after we turned in our boots. And JWV is the vehicle through which those connections and commitment of service endures."
JWV is supported as a cultural agency by JUF. To learn more or to join, contact the VFW's Department of Illinois by calling (847) 390-8762 or (312) 859-7373, firstname.lastname@example.org visiting www.jwv.org .