Whether stationed in Guantanamo Bay or in Vietnam, retired Naval Cmdr. Harold Sacks helped organize seders on several occasions during his military service. The Jewish Welfare Board—now JCC Association of North America, and whose role is now continued in JWB Jewish Chaplains Council— provided the seder staples so that U.S. military personnel and their spouses could have a little taste of home for the holidays at Passover, Chanukah and Rosh Hashanah, something it continues to do to this day. For his role, Sacks received a commendation from the Commission on Chaplaincy.
By Harold H. Sacks
As a career naval officer I found myself the senior Jew present on many occasions. Even as a lowly lieutenant, junior grade aboard the cruise USS Des Moines, I organized a seder for 50 men in 1956 during an emergency sortie. The food and materials came from JWB and the seder was attended by the ship’s captain and by the commander of the Atlantic Fleet Battleship Force.
In 1957 while stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba by Rabbi Aryeh Lev [director of the Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy of the National Jewish Welfare Board], of blessed memory, assisted me several times, providing for me, as lay leader of the congregation of 15 families, plus whatever men came ashore each Friday and for holidays from the visiting fleet. Through his work with Capt. Josh Goldberg we had a reservist rabbi to lead our services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
For each Passover in 1958 and 1959, JWB sent a huge crate of matzah, chicken, soup and gefilte fish, along with kippot (head coverings) and haggadot (haggadahs), and wine. Our seder was at the Marine Family Restaurant and was served by Cuban staff. At the end of each seder, after all had departed except me and my family, the Cuban waiters, wearing kippot while cleaning up, were singing “Had Gad Yo.”
In 1964, as a lieutenant commander on Gen. Westmoreland’s staff in Vietnam, I was instrumental, working with JWB in getting the first rabbi assigned to duty in Vietnam following the first known fatality of a Jewish serviceman. Lt. Col. Meir Engel was 54 years old and did a magnificent job for us, conducting services each Friday night (but spending the rest of the week out in the field with the men). I furnished the oneg with bagels my father-in-law mailed from New York, and canned salmon and cream cheese. Attendees included the British economic consul to Vietnam and his family and an Israeli, whose Vietnamese wife wore a prominent Magen David. Jewish troops came off helicopters with rifles and grenades.
Sadly, Rabbi Engel died of a sudden heart attack in December and was given full honors. I managed to get his gear back to his family.
But for Passover we had a new rabbi and held a huge seder for about 150. The photo of me, next to the rabbi (right), is from that event.
I had wonderful experiences setting up seders. No matter where I was stationed, JWB sent me what I needed.
Today, Harold Sacks is recuperating from and illness and hopes to be home for Passover. He says that just as he did in his Navy days, “I’ll do whatever task they ask me.” We wish him a refuah shlemah, or speedy recovery.
He also provided us with this recollection of Rabbi Meir Engel, who served in World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars:
At that time virtually all staff had advisory positions with the South Vietnamese military. Until 1964 roughly 80 percent of the troops were Buddhist and 20 percent Catholic; the officers were Catholic; the enlisted Buddhist. But the creation of a Buddhist Chaplain Corp had just been approved. The Buddhists rejected both the U.S. Catholic and Protestant chaplains as advisors, but accepted the rabbi. Thus, Lt.Col. Meir Engel became the United States Military Assistance Command advisor to the Buddhist Chaplain’s Corp of the South Vietnamese Army.