Honoring the Fallen

In 1998, when my children were 11, Saving Private Ryan was released. At the time, my boys were too young to see such a difficult movie, but I watched it on video with them a few years later. I wanted to emphasize that their freedom had been bought with many lives and that each of us has an obligation to honor that sacrifice by involvement in our communities. It came as a surprise to me when my son Joel chose to become a nuclear technician, or a “nuke,” in the United States Navy – but it’s a decision I was and continue to be proud of.

Since Joel’s enlistment, I have seen the commitment he and his colleagues in the Navy make in service of their country. Through his military friends in many branches of the armed forces, I’ve seen the difficulty of living a military life – the separation from family, the lifecycle events missed, the financial impact when deployed. And I’ve seen the idealism expressed by this commitment to the United States.

Several years ago, through my work with the Reform Movement, I discovered that many small congregations do not have easy access to the Department of Defense’s casualty list. Since then, I have been distributing it by email to any congregation that wishes to read these names at Shabbat services –  an act, the New York Jewish Week reports, that many synagogues have embraced. The response was and continues to be very positive, and I now send out a weekly acknowledgement of the loss of American lives. If your congregation wishes to receive this distribution, please email me.

While this responsibility is never going to appear in any official job description, it is one of the most sacred acts I perform during the week. As I send out these names, I feel sorrow for the young men and women who have died and the lives they won’t have a chance to live. I shudder at the pain of their parents, families, and friends who have lost someone dear. And I pray that each of them will find some measure of comfort and support knowing that there are so many praying for their loved ones and thanking them for their service.

Each person counts. We know that. It has been easy to ignore the enormous toll these two wars have taken on the lives of our young men and women. But we have to acknowledge that war has huge costs – not just in money, but in lives. I don’t view my email distribution as any type of political statement. I do view it as an acknowledgment of the cost of decisions made, and the debt we owe each person who has made this ultimate sacrifice. So each Shabbat, in my congregation and others, when we say each person’s name, we thank them for their service to their country and to each of us. We honor them, as they have honored us.