Papers of the U.S. Marine Corps' First Jewish Chaplain Donated to the American Jewish Archives at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn's participation in the dedication of the Iwo Jima Marine Cemetery and Memorial stirred controversy

The papers of Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn–the U.S. Marine Corps' first Jewish chaplain and an ardent pacifist–have been donated to The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives (AJA) by his children, Judith Fales of Naples, Florida and David Gittelsohn of Natick, Massachusetts. The collection includes Rabbi Gittelsohn's correspondence, writings and sermons–including the prayer he delivered on March 26, 1945 at the dedication of the Iwo Jima cemetery and memorial. The AJA is located on the Cincinnati, Ohio campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. 

During World War II, Rabbi Gittelsohn was assigned to the Marine Corps' Fifth Marine Division and was called upon to minister to servicemen of all faiths who comprised the American invading force at Iwo Jima. His efforts to comfort the wounded there earned him three service ribbons. When he was asked by the Division Chaplain to deliver the memorial sermon at a combined religious service dedicating the Marine Cemetery in March of 1945, many other chaplains objected to having a rabbi preach over predominantly Christian graves. Though the Division Chaplain refused to alter his plans, Gittelsohn hoped to save his commander further embarrassment by suggesting that separate religious services be held. The eulogy Gittelsohn delivered for the Jewish service was the one he had originally intended to deliver at the combined service. The text of his eulogy included the following passages:

"Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now a man who was destined to be a great prophet... to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none...We dedicate ourselves, first to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried here in war...Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor... together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews... together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy...Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price."

(Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, far right, conducts the memorial service on Iwo Jima; 1945.)

Gittelsohn–a lifelong Zionist dedicated to the vitality of Israel–was also devoted to political causes beyond the scope of American Judaism. He believed that through sustained and impassioned efforts to achieve social justice and equality, much could be done for the betterment of all. The Gittelsohn collection at the AJA includes civil rights focused correspondences with Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy. It also includes notes and other thoughts on laws and ethics regarding conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. Gittelsohn served on President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights (1947), the Governor's Commission to Survey Massachusetts Courts (1955), the Massachusetts Commission on Abolition of the Death Penalty (1957-1958), the Governor's Committee on Migratory Labor (1960-1962) and the Governor's Committee to Survey Operation of Massachusetts Prisons (1961-1962). 

Dr. Gary P. Zola, the AJA's Executive Director and Associate Professor of the American Jewish Experience at HUC-JIR, described Gittelsohn as "one of the most prominent American rabbis of the last half of twentieth century. This remarkable collection constitutes a historical treasure-trove," Zola observed. "And those who plumb the Gittelsohn papers will find new sources for reconstructing the American past. His was a rabbinic career that bespeaks the very essence of American culture." 

For more information on the Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn collection at the AJA, contact Kevin Proffitt, (513) 221-1875. 

The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, founded in 1947 by its namesake on the Cincinnati, Ohio, campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is committed to preserving a documentary heritage of the religious, organizational, economic, cultural, personal, social and family life of American Jewry. The Marcus Center contains over 15,000 linear feet of archives, manuscripts, nearprint materials, photographs, audio and videotapes, microfilm, and genealogical materials. The AJA is the currently the world's largest free-standing research center dedicated solely to the study of the American Jewish experience. 

Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn
A Brief Biography 

Roland B. Gittelsohn was born on May 13, 1910 in Cleveland, Ohio. He received a B.A. in 1931 from Western Reserve University and a B.H. from Hebrew Union College in 1934. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1936. Gittelsohn undertook graduate studies at the Teachers' College, Columbia University and New School in New York. He also received two honorary degrees in 1961, the first being a D.D. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the other a Sc.D. from Lowell Technological Institute (now Lowell University). 

Gittelson believed that the role of a rabbi, or any religious leader, was to lead by positive example, especially when political issues affect the poor, homeless or marginalized of society. His earliest sermons make his pacifism quite evident. Gittelsohn's resolve on the issue of war was tested when he became a chaplain in the Marines, though he reconciled this by drawing on the Jewish tradition of a "just war." Gittelsohn was a chaplain with the 5th Marine Division, participating in the Iwo Jima invasion. His dedication of the cemetery and memorial for Iwo Jima created a controversy over having a rabbi say a prayer at the graves of non-Jews. This address is perhaps his most famous legacy. He was awarded three ribbons for service at Iwo Jima. 

The war solidified Gittelson's belief that war must be a last resort for the good of humanity. This was most evident in Gittelsohn's outspoken condemnation of the Vietnam War, which was a controversial position to take especially in the early to mid 1960s. He was labeled a traitor by some, but an upholder of democracy by many others. This was also true during the McCarthy and House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) era when Gittelsohn publicly denounced the chipping away of civil liberties in America in a time of over-inflated fears. 

As a rabbi, he first served at the Central Synagogue of Nassau County, N.Y. from 1936-1953. He then became the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Boston, where he remained for the rest of his career. In addition to his congregational duties, Gittelsohn also was active in many organizations such as the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, where he was president from 1958-1960; president of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston 1961-1963, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) 1969-1971, founding president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) 1977-1984 and the founding president of the World Zionist Executive & Jewish Agency Board of Governors 1978-1984. Gittelsohn was also active in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). He was on its Board of Trustees and was the Vice Chairman from 1973-1977, and was an honorary life member and the Chairman of the Commission on Jewish Education 1959-1968. Gittelsohn was also devoted to political causes beyond the scope of American Judaism, believing that the best work to be done is that which benefits all. He was on President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights in 1947, the Governor's Commission to Survey Massachusetts Courts in 1955, Massachusetts Commission on Abolition of the Death Penalty 1957-1958, the Governor's Committee on Migratory Labor 1960-1962 and the Governor's Committee to Survey Operation of Massachusetts Prisons 1961-1962. 

Gittelsohn published numerous articles and books, such as Man's Best Hope; Modern Jewish Problems; Consecrated Unto Me; My Beloved is Mine; The Meaning of Modern Judaism; Love, Sex, and Marriage: A Jewish View; The Meaning of Modern Judaism; Harnessed to Hope; Love in Your Life: A Jewish View of Teenage Sexuality

Gittelsohn died on December 13, 1995. His first wife was Ruth Freyer with whom he had a son, David B. Gittelsohn, and a daughter, Judith Fales. His second wife was Hulda Tishler. He had two stepsons, Gerald Tishler and Douglas Tishler, four grandchildren and three step-grandchildren. 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.