Jews in the military'They need to know it's something we did for a real soldier'

To honor WWII vet, seafaring Torah scroll to sail on new US Navy supercarrier

Ahead of Veterans Day, a gift helps the 30-40 Jewish service members aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford worship on the high seas

The USS Gerald R. Ford. (Public domain)
The USS Gerald R. Ford. (Public domain)

As Americans give thanks to their military veterans, a Torah scroll aboard the US Navy’s newest aircraft carrier will honor one veteran in particular — and its dedication ceremony is among the ongoing events occurring during a centennial celebration of outreach efforts to Jewish servicemembers.

On November 29, in Norfolk, Virginia, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a signature program of JCC Association of North America, will dedicate a Torah in memory of World War II veteran Jacob Kamaras aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford.

The ceremony will honor Kamaras, who served in the Army Air Corps, as well as recognize a century of JWB’s outreach to servicemembers, which began when it was founded in 1917 as the Jewish Welfare Board, days after the US entered World War I. To celebrate its second century, JWB, in a historic partnership with the Kamaras family, created a customized Torah for the Ford.

The ceremony will take place just over two weeks after Veterans Day.

“It’s certainly appropriate timing. … It’s a significant time for our country,” said Jacob Kamaras, the grandson and namesake of the WWII veteran.

“This Torah will be an opportunity for tremendous benefit for members of the military,” said Kamaras, who never knew his grandfather. “For the timing to work out, to happen at a time veterans are honored, is fitting.”

Named after the late 38th president — himself a Navy veteran who served aboard the carrier Monterey during WWII — and formally commissioned by President Donald Trump on July 22, the Ford is the first of a new class of Navy supercarriers, with two nuclear reactors and an electromagnetic system for launching its 75-plus aircraft.

In the ship’s chapel, its 30 to 40 Jewish sailors will be able to read from the Torah during the six-to-eight-month periods in which they are away from land. While the ship does not have a Jewish chaplain, it does have a Jewish lay leader.

Illustrative: Rabbi Josh Sherwin, Lt., Navy leads Rosh Hashanah services aboard the USS Ronald Reagan in September 2017. (Courtesy JWB)

The Kamaras family not only sponsored the acquisition of the Torah, they also supported every phase of its development from purchasing the parchment, to finding a scribe, to selecting the cover design.

The $36,000 scroll will be fitted with a $500 cover, and reside in a special wooden ark built through another donation — from David Hoffberger of Annapolis, Maryland. Hoffberger works in the US Naval Academy chaplain’s office.

The Torah weighs seven to eight pounds. Brooklyn attorney Philip Kamaras — son of the WWII veteran, and the younger Jacob Kamaras’ father — explained that although the carrier is huge, over 1,000 feet in length, “everything’s a little smaller. The ceilings are low, the bunk rooms are smaller.” And the Torah is one-third smaller than a regular Torah, he said.

“It’s so light and easy to carry,” he marveled. “It’s like you have super strength, even though you know it’s light. I feel like it’s part of me.”

Torahs for military Jews

The Ford’s Torah arose out of “Torah for Our Troops,” a 2009 project by JWB to provide portable Torahs for active-duty service members.

The Color Guard marches during an October 12, 2014, dedication of a Torah scroll commissioned for the US military by the Kamaras family. (Courtesy/Alexa Drew Photography)

“It was a highly successful program,” said Rabbi Irving Elson, JWB director.

The program raised funds to create five highly mobile sefer Torahs not only aboard ships, but also at military bases across the world. At the time, there were only 50-plus Torahs for the nation’s 10,000 Jewish military personnel and their families — a total of 25,000 people.

“We had some Torahs, not always our own sefer Torahs,” Elson said. “We didn’t have Torahs that people deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan could take with them. We started the program so we could have some Torahs made.”

But there were still servicemembers who did not have ready access to a Torah, including aboard carriers, which only had small non-kosher paper Torahs, Elson said.

A 35-year Navy veteran who became the highest-ranking Jewish chaplain in the Marines before his retirement last year, Elson said that when he served as a military rabbi aboard a ship, “I would use one of the little paper Torahs, or take a Torah with me.”

When two goals coincide

The Kamaras family was seeking a way to recognize the 50th anniversary of the death of Jacob Kamaras, who died of a heart attack at age 56 on October 6, 1964.

“He was a good, average man, an average Joe, an average GI Joe,” his daughter Deborah Markowitz says in a video produced by his granddaughter Sarah Kamaras. “A good, honest American-Jewish person.”

Jacob Kamaras was born in 1908 to a family of Greek Jewish descent. His father was a tailor and he himself learned how to sew — a skill that served him well during WWII.

“My father didn’t think he would be drafted in 1942,” Philip Kamaras said. “He was 34 and got drafted. The oldest age you could be drafted was 35. He was almost at the limit.

“He had a sewing background from his father. He was one of the specialists who worked on parachutes. He was a staff sergeant who went to Europe and helped prepare paratroopers’ equipment for the Normandy landings. He spent the rest of the war in Europe till November 1945,” Kamaras said.

In the video, Markowitz recalled letters her father wrote to cousins in which he described his love for the Parisian life.

“He couldn’t wait to go back,” she said. “He never made it.”

As his family prepared to mark a half-century since his death, they contemplated ways to honor his memory. Philip Kamaras brainstormed with his son, who contacted JWB.

Illustrative: An open Torah, with hand-carved pointer. (Courtesy Wendy Graff)

Jacob Kamaras — a Houston resident and former editor of the Jewish News Service — credited his father with “the idea for a commemorative Torah scroll in Jacob’s memory. We were talking about what’s the appropriate venue for this.

“For us, it couldn’t be [anything] other than that, because Jacob was a veteran, it would be very appropriate to work to commemorate a Torah scroll for the US military, very appropriate from that standpoint,” he said.

“They heard about the [Torah for Our Troops] initiative and contacted JWB,” Elson said. “Philip Kamaras and his son Jacob are supporters of the JWB and really inspiring.”

President Gerald Ford, 1974, as photographed by David Hume Kennerly (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, public domain)

The writing of the Torah was completed in a ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan on October 12, 2014.

“It was very powerful,” Jacob Kamaras said. “A lot of people were there from all parts of our lives. The sofer was there, the color guard was there. … I remember that my father had my grandfather’s flag. I remember a color guard played ‘Taps’ in the ceremony. For that purpose, they used my grandfather’s flag. It was very emotional.”

Kamaras said JWB “definitely helped make it happen from start to finish. They have a great program writing Torahs for the military.”

Philip Kamaras said he made sure that the Torah cover recognized his father.

“Completing the cover, it just said, ‘JWB Chaplains,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘No. You have to put my father’s name on it.’ A soldier goes up, gets an aliya, they need to know it’s not something issued by the government, it’s something we did for a real soldier. He put his life on the line for almost four years. I want people on the ship to know I appreciate the work they’re doing.”

Ford and Kamaras descendants honor their fathers

Philip Kamaras said he did not have a choice as to where the Torah would go. His son said that the family “had to wait till the Gerald Ford was ready to launch. There’s been the delay the last few years.”

But in 2015, “the ship started to be completed,” Philip Kamaras said. And on July 22, he attended the commissioning ceremony, invited by Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales.

“It was on Shabbat,” he recalled. “I stayed in a hotel and made a three-mile walk. I was there for the dedication.

“The president was there, Susan Ford [Bales] was there, the whole family. The governor of Virginia, some senators. I think 20-25,000 people were there. … It was boiling hot, 97 degrees. I was lucky [Bales] got me a nice seat inside the ship. … It was a very moving ceremony,” Kamaras said.

October 12, 2014, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, Jacob Kamaras (right) and scribe Zerach Greenfield complete the final letter in a new Torah scroll for the U.S. military. Behind Greenfield is an emotional Philip Kamaras, Jacob’s father. At left is Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, leader of the Agudath Israel of Madison congregation. (Courtesy/Alexa Drew Photography)

Asked to describe the ship, he said, “The ship is huge, 1,100 feet long, almost four football fields. It’s gray, a serious-looking ship.”

As for its crew, he said, “of 3,000 to 4,000 servicepeople, for the handful out of that group, of 30 to 40 Jewish people, the Torah will be there permanently. … They made a small ark for it. I hope soldiers and sailors get some good use out of it during the year and holidays.”

Efforts like these have been the purpose of JWB ever since it was founded on April 9, 1917, following American entry into WWI.

Elson calls JWB’s original mission statement fascinating and simple: “To help the US win the war.”

It created JWB houses, akin to Hillel houses, on and inside military bases, “where a Jewish person could come and speak the immigrants’ mamaloshen [mother tongue — Yiddish],” Elson said. The organization was also involved in “recruiting and training rabbis and military chaplains, where it continues to go today.”

Rabbi Irving Elson, Director, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council; Director, JCC Association Armed Forces and Veterans Service Committee. (Courtesy JWB)

During WWII, JWB would help found the United Service Organizations, or USO, made famous by celebrity supporters such as Bob Hope.

“President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt actually contacted JWB,” Elson said. “He knew of the tremendous work they were doing with military personnel. They convened a meeting with other helping organizations — the YMCA, the [National Travelers Aid Association]. JWB held a meeting in New York for a joint organization called the United Service Organizations. We were really the ones who convened the meeting.”

And, Elson said, “in every conflict for the US since WWI — WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom — JWB has been supporting Jewish personnel, recruited and trained rabbis going into the military to serve as military chaplains.”

He said the organization also provides important resources, such as siddurim, shofars and holiday packages, for Jewish personnel — including a special siddur for servicemembers in Afghanistan that is the only publication in the US approved by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform authorities.

“It’s quite an accomplishment,” Elson said. “We’re getting ready, at the beginning of next year, to deliver the latest edition of the prayerbook to the military.”

And at the end of this month, JWB and the Kamaras family will celebrate the customized Torah for the USS Ford.

“I’m very proud,” said Philip Kamaras, who plans to attend the ceremony. “I feel like I have a spiritual connection with all of the thousands of servicepeople putting their lives on the line for the country. I hope if they make time, they’ll have the opportunity to see the Torah and understand who dedicated it.”

Illustrative: US military Chaplain Capt. David Frommer meets with engineers on a search and extraction mission at the remains of a residential neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California, during the 2017 wildfires. (Courtesy JWB)

“It feels like now our family is written into US history in a significant way, and Jewish history,” Jacob Kamaras said. “Before, our grandfather’s service was like a footnote. Now, his legacy is positively influencing current and future soldiers’ ability to connect to Judaism.

“It’s really gratifying. Our family is pleased to participate. It’s exciting to think of all the different soldiers who will benefit from this — their stories, service. The Gerald Ford hopefully will be a safe haven and refuge for them,” he said.

Elson said he hopes the Torah will be a focal point for Jewish services aboard the ship and for the Jewish community — “Something they can look at and point to.” A removable ark, which can also be used on land, “will be a great symbol in front of the chapel.”

“It becomes a symbol, an important sign for the Jewish community, far beyond the Jewish community, the ship in general,” Elson said.

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