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Students learn proud heritage of Jewish military service
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Students learn proud heritage of Jewish military service

Less than a week ahead of Memorial Day, fifth grader Josh Artel of Highland Park said he gained a new appreciation for veterans.

“I learned to respect the veterans because they fought for my country and to make me safe,” he told NJJN. “If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here today.”

His sister Ilana, a third-grader, said she was happy to hear that Jews served in the military because “this is such a really good country that we love.”

Josh and Ilana were among the students at Nefesh Yehudi Academy in East Brunswick who heard on May 22 from four members of the Lt. Seth Dvorin Post 972 of the Jewish War Veterans (JWV) in Marlboro. The vets recounted their experiences as Jews in the American military, and Dvorin’s mother talked about the ultimate sacrifice her son made for his country.  

“We wanted the students to know Memorial Day is more than just barbecues,” said Nefesh Yehudi educational director Elie Salomon. “Jews have served in the military and we’re lucky to live in this country where we can practice whatever religion we want.” 

Nefesh Yehudi Academy, located at the Young Israel of East Brunswick, is an after-school, multi-denominational
Jewish studies program for students in kindergarten through seventh grade who attend the Hatikvah International Charter School, a Hebrew-language immersion institution, also in East Brunswick.

Sitting on the floor during the program, the students asked questions and examined medals and mementos the vets had brought with them. A framed photo of Seth Dvorin, who grew up in East Brunswick and died heroically in 2004 while serving in Iraq, sat perched on the table; he was photographed wearing his Army dress uniform. The 24-year-old Rutgers University graduate had been married just five days before he went overseas. 

“My son had great pride in being Jewish and great pride in serving,” Sue Niederer told the students. “Jews do fight, and Jews do lose their lives.”

At the conclusion of the program, everyone sang the Star-Spangled Banner, some of the students copying motions of the veterans, who raised their hands to their foreheads in salute. Student Ben Aranovich of East Brunswick held a small American flag.

“I thought it was really cool and interesting when they talked about how dangerous it could be sometimes, but that you were never alone because the other men always had your back,” said Libby Gurman, a third grader from Edison. “It is important to serve your country because if you don’t, almost everyone would be dead.”

Bernie Rothenberg, 92, who served in France and Germany during World War II and helped liberate the last of the prisoners at the Leipzig-Thekla concentration camp, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, lamented the lives lost because they did not arrive earlier.

“Unfortunately, we got there one day too late,” said Rothenberg. “What the German guards did was round up 300 prisoners, closed them in, and burned them alive.”

The son of Russian immigrants, Rothenberg was just 19 years old at the time. He described the difficulties, fears, and camaraderie of the soldiers.

“You were always dirty, you never had a chance to be clean,” he said. “You were afraid you were going to die all the time. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a dead soldier lying in the gutter and thought, ‘That could be me,’ but there was also this great solidarity.”

Rothenberg, who brought his medals, including a Bronze Star, all pinned neatly onto a tray, noted, “I am proud to be a Jew, I am proud to be an American, and I am proud to have served my country.”

Post Commander Jack Small, who served a generation later during the Vietnam era, said he took special pride in serving the country that gave his Holocaust-surviving parents refuge — his mother was interned in Bergen-Belsen and Dachau and his father was liberated from Dachau.

Ira Brodsky was drafted in 1969, also during the Vietnam era. The military agreed to defer his report date for three months to allow him to finish his graduate degree in chemistry, and he was eventually assigned to an analytical unit.

“I was up in smokestacks analyzing pollutants,” said Brodsky. “I also worked with nerve gas to determine how it could safely be destroyed. I enjoyed the work so much that after I got out I went for another master’s degree in environmental engineering.”

Bruce Sherman, who was drafted just before Vietnam in 1962, noted the JWV is the nation’s oldest veterans’ organization, dating back to the Civil War, and that Jews have defended the country since before the Revolutionary War, before it was even the United States.

“Don’t let anyone tell you Jews don’t serve,” Sherman said.         

Dvorin died a hero. Having spotted what he believed to be an improvised explosive device (IED), he ordered the 18 soldiers under his command to stand back while he checked it out.

“Unfortunately, someone pushed the button,” Niederer said. 

For his bravery, he posthumously received numerous commendations, including a Bronze Star.

Niederer seemed to most effectively convey the meaning of Memorial Day to the students, telling them that only now, 14 years after his death, is she able to speak about her son.

“War is not like a video game, bang, bang shoot them up,” she said. “They are really shooting at you.”

Niederer takes solace in speaking about her son all over the world and in the tributes and monuments in his honor, including in the township of East Brunswick,  which renamed the street he grew up on “Seth Dvorin Lane.” She remains active in the GI Go Fund, established by three of Seth’s friends in his honor, to assist veterans, active-duty personnel, and their families with employment, benefits, and housing opportunities.

She said she still speaks to her son every night before going to bed, and now she has a grandson, also named Seth, to carry on his name.

“I miss him,” she said.

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