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Elkins Park rabbi finds the untold stories of Jewish war veterans who gave their lives for America

American Jews have been serving since the colonial era, with more than 500,000 in World War II alone. But their contributions are often overlooked, ignored and challenged.

Historian and Rabbi Lance Sussman, of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, points to names of veterans on a memorial plaque at the Elkins Park synagogue.
Historian and Rabbi Lance Sussman, of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, points to names of veterans on a memorial plaque at the Elkins Park synagogue.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The Jewish war veterans died on battlefields and in prison camps, on boats sunk by enemy fire, in planes shot out of the sky, but Rabbi Lance Sussman knew only their names — two dozen, inscribed on a bronze plaque in the corner of a chapel at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.

Each year on the Sabbath before Veterans Day, he read them to the congregation. But the recitation seemed cursory, far short of fitting for men who gave their lives during a century of world-shaping conflicts, from the Civil War through Vietnam.

So, five years ago, Sussman gathered a team of synagogue researchers and editors to compile the histories of those memorialized on the plaque. Their biographical sketches now fill a newly published, 58-page book, How the Mighty Are Fallen: Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel Veterans Memorial Book.  During Friday evening's service, the rabbi not only read their names, but for the first time told their stories.

The first name on the plaque and in the book — the only one from the Civil War — is Pvt. Isaac Snellenburg, of the Philadelphia department store dynasty. Lying about his age, he was able to join the Union forces while still a teenager and served as a drummer boy until his death in 1862 during a battle in Virginia.

His family, whose members once sat in Keneseth Israel alongside fellow retail moguls in the Gimbel and Lit families, still attend the synagogue.

His great-great-uncle's tragically foreshortened life "is something I'm very interested in," said Milton Snellenburg Jr., 83, a retired salesman from Schwenksville. "But all I really know is that he is buried in Mount Sinai Cemetery in Frankford."

 >>READ MORE: Tales from the Luckiest Generation in Elkins Park

Alongside the Snellenburg bio are the stories of Capt. Frederick David Clair, a doctor who removed wounded men from the battlefield under fire during World War II; First Lt. George Lavenson, a Bronze Star winner who parachuted behind enemy lines before the Normandy invasion; and a young World War I private, John Falk Furer of Camden, who perished in France. The  Furer-Barag-Wolf Post 126 of the Jewish War Veterans in Cherry Hill is partially named for his family. The book also includes two synagogue rabbis: Joseph Krauskopf, who served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and Bertram W. Korn, a chaplain in the U.S. Navy Reserve in World War II who achieved the rank of rear admiral.

American Jews have been serving since the colonial era – more than 500,000 fought in World War II alone.  But their contributions are often overlooked, ignored and challenged because of ignorance and anti-Semitism, said Paul D. Warner, past national commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, an advocacy group that operates its own museum in Washington.

Jews were viewed as "shirkers" who ran away from their civic responsibilities, said Sussman, whose father and father-in-law were awarded the Bronze Star for their service in World War II.

A perception of Jews as passive victims of the Holocaust — despite acts of resistance such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — has fed the myth, said Joe Davidson, a researcher who worked on the book project.

At the same time, Sussman said, the band-of-brothers ethos of World War II helped work against that misconception. "People fought with each other and died with each other," the rabbi said. "It was a kind of breakthrough."

Yet, last November, Israeli diplomat Tzipi Hotovely questioned whether American Jews who "never send their children to fight for their country" could understand the "complexity" of the Middle East. Hotovely was responding to a TV interviewer's question about criticism of Israeli policies by some U.S. Jews, and she was widely rebuked.

"It hit the fan. I met with members of the Israeli foreign office and chewed them out," Warner said. Hotovely later apologized.

The most recent name added to the list of military dead was Marine Capt. Samuel A. Schultz, of Huntingdon Valley, who died at age 28 with three other Marines when their helicopter crashed during a training accident in April in California. Schultz's family doesn't attend the synagogue, but Sussman officiated at his services.

The family was present Friday when the synagogue honored him.

 >>READ MORE: Learning from those who served

To research How the Mighty Are Fallen, Sussman, assistant editor and graphic designer Joan Myerson Shrager, archivist Jack Myers, and Davidson scoured synagogue archives, newspaper articles, and websites such as, along with census, military and death records. They sent away to colleges and high schools for information.

In addition to producing a memorial book, their work may eventually help recover the remains of Sgt. Noel E. Beck.

Drafted into World War II in his mid-20s, Beck left his family home near Broad Street and Olney Avenue and headed to the Pacific, where he was an aerial gunner, firing rounds at the enemy from a B-29. His plane was shot down over Japan on April 15, 1945; trapped in a POW camp fire, he was presumed dead. Told via telegram that he was missing, his parents and siblings searched for details in newspaper articles. Various reports claimed that the prisoners were shot and killed during the inferno, or that they were left locked in their cells while the guards fled.  His body was never recovered.

In August, more than 70 years later, Barbara Geisler, a Berks County volunteer researcher with the MIA Recovery Network, which helps families establish the identities of missing veterans, found information online about the synagogue's book project and contacted Keneseth Israel seeking relatives of Beck. That led to a connection between Beck's family and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, whose mission is to recover the remains of military personnel who were POWs or listed as missing in action.  Last week, Beck's brother, David R. Beck, 85, of Philadelphia,  gave DNA samples along with his sister and nephew in an effort to identify the remains of the missing airman.

"It's very nice to know that my brother's sacrifice is being remembered," said David Beck, who was 13 when Noel was killed.

His death "was the biggest event of my life. I loved my brother. He was a wonderful man."