Newton attorney Harvey Weiner is a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a former national commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA. While stationed in South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in 1969, he experienced everything from night ambushes and rocket attacks to small raids and sniper fire. He was involved in a roadside bombing when a land mine blew up a jeep driving just ahead of his own vehicle.
So every year around this time, Weiner undertakes a self-imposed special mission. He urges rabbis to honor the memory of every Jewish service member who has died in combat since Sept. 11, 2001 – the date of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington – asking them to recite their names on the Shabbat before Memorial Day.
He said he was once told about a Jewish teaching that human beings die twice: Once when the body dies, and once when their names are no longer mentioned. Though he doesn’t know the source, the idea resonates with him deeply.
“We don’t want their names to be forgotten,” he said.
As of this year, the number of known Jewish service members who have died in combat since 2001 stands at 58: two women and 56 men. They range in age from 19 to 43, and represent 27 states. Their hometowns are urban, suburban, and rural.
They served in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn), and in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel). “They seem to be Jews from all walks of life,” Weiner said. “All ranks, from private to major, all the different branches of the service.”
One of these servicemen had a Massachusetts connection. Army Captain Ben Sklaver was 32 in 2009 when he was killed in Muscheh, Afghanistan, by a suicide bomber waiting silently behind a building as Sklaver rounded the corner.
Sklaver, from Hamden, Conn., attended Tufts University in Medford, where he earned an undergraduate degree in international relations and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, focusing on security studies and humanitarian assistance. While attending Tufts, he enrolled in ROTC.
“He was very much a humanitarian who just wanted to help people and make the world a better place,” said his younger sister, Annie Sklaver Orenstein, who is writing a book based on her brother’s life and diaries. “Always a Sibling” is expected to be released in late 2023 or early 2024.
“He felt the military had the infrastructure and resources available to it to access communities in need – more access than an NGO [non-governmental organization] would have,” she said.
In an earlier deployment, Sklaver had served in northern Uganda, which opened his eyes to the problems endemic in regions beset by violence and civil unrest. He developed a passion for bringing clean water supplies to such areas.
“He was interested in boosting infrastructure and local resources,” said Orenstein. “He was really moved and impacted by the effect that building a well could have in a community that didn’t have safe drinking water, and where kids couldn’t go to school because they had to go get water.”
When he was 30, Sklaver founded the ClearWater Initiative, a nonprofit working to supply clean drinking water to rural Ugandans.
After her brother died, she read his journals, and wrote about them in a 2020 essay for Time magazine. In one entry, Sklaver referenced the anonymity of men and women in the military:
2/6/98 Geneva, Switzerland
Went to the Red Cross Museum today and got a needed reminder of the faces behind the war. Not the numbers we talk about, but the faces … [It] made me wonder: Why don’t people learn war kills? Can this be changed? Is war human nature? No. Human nature is a desire for security, food, and shelter. So does a solution exist? Help. Seems like the only choice for now. Just go in and help.
“The military was how he died, not how he lived,” Orenstein said. “I think there is this narrative that people just join the military to get the bad guys. I think he was so far from that. For him, it wasn’t about the bad guys. It was about people who didn’t have the resources.”
The Jewish War Veterans organization is participating in several commemorative events across the state for Memorial Day.
U.S. Representative Jake Auchincloss of Newton, a Jewish Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan and Panama, described JWV as a very important organization, one of a constellation of Jewish civic organizations “that make American Jewish life so vibrant.”
In Eastern Massachusetts, JWV members will plant flags at cemeteries, including on the North Shore.
The planting of flags to remember veterans is a major undertaking, and a challenging one.
Korea veteran Alan Lehman, commander of the JWV North Shore Post 220 in Peabody, was looking to have over 1,000 graves of Jewish veterans flagged at cemeteries in Lynn, Danvers, and Peabody by Memorial Day.
His wife Donna Lehman, herself an Iraq War veteran, said flagging is hard work for those who help out, many of whom are elderly. Sometimes they have to plant flags in the rain.
“We need new members,” she said. “It’s hard to get people to join.”
The North Shore post will join its fellow members of the Peabody Veterans Council for a Memorial Day service at Cedar Grove Cemetery on Sunday, May 29, at 9:30 a.m. The post will then march in Peabody’s Memorial Day parade.
Barry Lischinsky, the JWV national chief of staff who is affiliated with North Shore Post 220, was focusing on Pride of Lynn Cemetery in Lynn, where he expected American flags would be planted at the gravesites of 261 Jewish veterans.
The second annual memorial service at Pride of Lynn will take place on Sunday, May 29, at 10 a.m.
Lehman said anyone who has a relative who was a veteran and whose grave is not marked with a flag should contact the cemetery. “Every veteran,” he said, “deserves a flag.”