For Cantor Eli Perlman, taking part in the Oct. 24 dedication of the memorial to the 14 Jewish U.S. military chaplains killed in action was an opportunity to pay well-deserved tribute to fallen heroes.
But his participation in the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington was also a way to honor the military service of his father and the memory of one chaplain with whom he served.
Perlman, religious leader of Congregation Beit Shalom in Monroe, was invited to sing the “El Malei Rachamim” memorial prayer with his brother, Emmanuel, cantor at Chizuk Amuno in Baltimore.
“It was so moving to be a part of the ceremony,” said Perlman.
The new monument features a plaque inscribed with the names of Jewish chaplains who died serving during World War II, the early years of the Cold War, and in southeast Asia. It stands beside separate monuments honoring fallen Protestant and Catholic chaplains that have been present on Chaplains Hill since 1981 and 1989, respectively.
Seeing “the memorials for the Catholic and Protestant chaplains, and now the Jewish memorial, you realized how glaring its absence was,” said Perlman. “Jewish military service has always been taken for granted. People don’t realize Jews have always fought and died for this country.”
Perlman himself rose to the rank of captain in the Army’s Special Forces during the Vietnam War era. He served in 1967 with Capt. Morton Harold Singer, who was killed the following year when the plane taking him to lead Hanukka festivities for American troops crashed in Vietnam.
Perlman told NJJN that he and Singer became friends while attending “jump school,” or paratrooper training.
“He had the greatest sense of humor of anybody I ever met in the military,” said Perlman. “We had this thing where we would stand at the entrance to the plane and he would say, ‘You go first,’ and then I would say, ‘No you go first,’ and we would go back and forth like that.”
Perlman also came to appreciate Singer as a chaplain while serving at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg. “He would always get me gefilte fish,” Perlman said. “I don’t know where he got it from.”
Perlman was reminded of the relationship, he said, as he stood near the monument at Arlington, where Singer’s name is one of the 14 listed. Perlman approached Singer’s daughter, who was four when her father died, and told her about his experiences with her father.
“She had heard her father went to jump school but had never actually met anyone who trained with him,” said Perlman.
Perlman said he learned about the dedication of the memorial through correspondence from the Jewish War Veterans, of which he is a member. He contacted Rear Admiral Rabbi Harold Robinson, director of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council, who was tapped to read the famous eulogy delivered by Roland B. Gittelsohn, the first Marine Corps Jewish chaplain, at the dedication of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima in March 1945.
Perlman’s father, Cantor Ivan Perlman, as a young Marine on Iwo Jima, stood next to Gittelsohn that day and chanted a version of “El Malei Rachamim” sung only for fallen U.S. soldiers.
Gittelsohn had been asked by the division chaplain to deliver the sermon at a joint service for all those killed in the 1945 battle, but the Catholic and many Protestant chaplains so strongly objected that three separate services were held.
However, three of the Protestant chaplains were so outraged, they boycotted their own service to attend Gittelsohn’s. They sent thousands of copies of his sermon extolling the cause of democracy and freedom to the entire regiment. It was widely circulated, appearing in newspapers and magazines nationwide, and was read on the radio and into the Congressional Record.
At the Arlington ceremony, Perlman said, officiants told the story of the Jewish service on Iwo Jima and announced that two of Cantor Ivan Perlman’s sons were to chant the same prayer. (Perlman’s only regret is that his two other brothers, also cantors, were unable to take part.)
He and his brother sang the haunting prayer, said Perlman, “as a tribute to my father and his military service to this country.”
“It was a beautiful event,” he said. “People were crying as we sang.”