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New Memorial Honors Jewish Chaplains in Time for Veterans Day

The Jewish Chaplains Memoriali on Chaplains Hill at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Viginia, October 24, 2011

Jews have fought in every American armed conflict since the Revolutionary War, but it wasn't until the U.S. Civil War that Congress revised a law that allowed only Christian chaplains.

Since then, hundreds of rabbis have left their pulpits for the military chaplaincy. But Friday, November 11, will be the first Veterans Day holiday with a monument commemorating the 14 Jewish chaplains who died while on active duty.

The granite structure stands at Arlington National Cemetery next to three others dedicated to Protestant and Catholic clergy who died while serving.

Rabbi Marvin Bash, the military cemetery's Jewish chaplain, stands at the end of the row of monuments on Chaplains' Hill and says the new one with the Star of David makes him proud. "We're standing in the same line with the other religious groups of our nation," he says.

Bash says the omission was not the result of discrimination, but simply because no one had lobbied for it.

That changed a few years ago when Kenneth Kraetzer, who hosts a radio show in New York about veterans, was researching a story of World War II heroism known as the "Immortal Chaplains".

On February 3, 1943, Reverends George L. Fox and Clark V. Poling, Father John P. Washington and Rabbi Alexander Goode were sailing on the Dorchester, a U.S. Army transport ship, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Greenland.

There weren't enough life jackets for the more than 900 soldiers and civilians onboard. Goode and his Christian brethren made the ultimate sacrifice.

"They said, 'We're going to stand here, hold arms together, pray. We're going to give our life jackets to the people who need them in the water," Bash said.

Survivors say the chaplains went down singing hymns to a shared God.

The Immortal Chaplains became a powerful interfaith symbol. In 1948, the U.S. postal service issued a stamp in their honor. And in 1960, The Chaplain's Medal for Heroism was established to commemorate the actions of the four men.

But when Kraetzer came to Chaplains' Hill a few years ago, he found the names of only the Christian chaplains and not Rabbi Goode.

Kraetzer, who is Catholic, enlisted the support of national Jewish organizations and, in May of this year, Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution to establish the memorial.

The monument was dedicated with a wreath-laying ceremony on October 24, and was attended by veterans, lawmakers and family members.

"This monument really gives Jews their place as part of the wider American story," says David McKenzie of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.