Just as Jewish American Heritage Month was winding down in May, Congress approved the installation of a Jewish Chaplains Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The new monument will commemorate Jewish chaplains who died while serving on active duty in the Armed Forces.
Among the 13 Jewish chaplains to be memorialized is David M. Sobel, a West Hartford native who died while serving in the U.S. Air Force in 1974.
Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) Jewish Chaplains Council, a division of JCC Association, has worked to secure Congressional approval for the memorial, in partnership with the Jewish War Veterans, Jewish Federations of North America, and New York-based members of the American Legion, and with the support of 34 Jewish communal organizations.
There are 242 names memorialized on Chaplains Hill in Arlington, but none of the 13 Jewish chaplains who died while serving on active duty are included. The first monument was dedicated in 1926 to 23 chaplains. A second was erected in 1981, memorializing 134 Protestant chaplains who served in World Wars I and II; eight years later, a third was built to commemorate 83 Catholic chaplains who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
The omission was first brought to the public’s attention four years ago by Ken Kraetzer of New Rochelle, N.Y. A member of the Sons of the American Legion and radio host of “American Legion Veterans Segment” on WVOX in Westchester, Kraetzer was doing research on World War II when he visited Chaplains Hill. When he couldn’t find the names of any fallen Jewish chaplains, he contacted the Jewish War Veterans of America, who directed him to the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council.
In 2010, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council and its partners started a campaign to raise the necessary private funds to establish the memorial. That year, allegations surfaced that workers at Arlington National Cemetery had placed the wrong markers on graves and had buried more than one body in a single grave. As a result, any proposed cemetery projects were subject to strict oversight and required the passage of concurrent resolutions in the House and Senate. In January of this year, Rep. Anthony Weiner and Sen. Charles Schumer, both of New York, and Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, introduced those resolutions.
The memorial must now be approved by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. JWB Jewish Chaplains Council hopes to dedicate the completed monument as early as this fall.
David M. Sobel
Born in 1946, Sobel attended King Philip Junior High and was active in student government at Conard High School. “He was short, probably 5′-3″,” says his cousin, Bob Bourke of West Hartford, who was a classmate in both schools. “So our sales pitch in all his campaigns was, ‘Good things come in small packages.’ Dave was very outgoing, got good grades, and was on the tennis team.”
After graduating in 1964, Sobel went off to Dartmouth College, and then to Hebrew Union College, where he was ordained in 1973. He served as a student rabbi as Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation in Simsbury had just been founded. “His shtick was playing guitar and singing with the kids,” Bourke says. “He really got the kids involved.”
Sobel joined the U.S. Air Force after rabbinical school “because he wanted to work directly with people,” Bourke says. “He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do as a rabbi, but he was not actively looking for a congregation at the time.” At the end of his active duty in Thailand during the Vietnam War, Sobel was en route to the airport to catch a plane to Israel. The car he was riding in was involved in a traffic accident, and Sobel was killed.
Survived by his parents and three siblings, Sobel was buried in the Beth Israel Cemetery on Ward Street in Hartford.
The Sobels and Bourkes were members of Beth Israel during the tenure of Rabbi Abraham J. Feldman, where the cousins were all active in NFTY, Bourke says. While the two families lived in different parts of town, the two families would get together regularly, and Bob and Dave had friends in both the Elmwood and North End sections, Bourke says
“Dave was a good kid,” Bourke says. “He was very intelligent, very friendly; people liked him and he got along well with everyone. When Dave was in rabbinical school, we had a conversation about how rabbis’ sermons reach a high point and then keep going for another 10 minutes. Dave said, jokingly, ‘That’s part of the curriculum.’ A year before he died, he was visiting my wife and me in New Jersey and we’d just bought a new car. Dave insisted on giving a rabbinical blessing – in Hebrew – over the car. He really made it an occasion.”
A list of the 13 Jewish chaplains who will be included in a new memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, and related story, can be found here.