In a proclamation dated 5th of May, 1868, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that the 30th of May, 1868 would be the nations official memorial day. On that day in 1868 flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. By 1890, Memorial Day was honored in all of the states in the North. The states of the South refused to honor Memorial Day until after WWI, preferring to honor Confederate dead on separate days. After WWI the Southern states began to honor Memorial Day after the meaning of the day was changed from honoring the dead of the Civil War to honoring the dead of all American wars. The observance of Memorial Day, which used to be a sacred day on the American Calendar, has declined in recent years. Some place responsibility on Congress, which in 1971 moved Memorial Day from May 30th to the final Monday in May, thus creating a three day weekend every year and thus undermining the very meaning of the day. But it is likely as well that the creation of an all-volunteer army has also had something to do with the change in Memorial Day observance. Today, the burdens of military service fall on a small proportion of the population. This makes it easier, perhaps, for Presidents to start wars, and continue them, because the sacrifice for these wars is not shared by a broad cross section of the American people. We finance these wars through debt, so that the taxpayer does not have to sacrifice even financially for the enormous costs of the wars. Indeed, it has been easy for most of us here to live our lives for the past 12 years completely unaffected by the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya that we have engaged in. It is easy to forget that over 5700 American servicemen and women have died in these wars, and tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of Americans have been wounded. Many of these wounded have had their lives changed forever by the nature of their injuries. Today, when we think of Jews who serve in the military, we are most likely to think of Jewish soldiers in the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces. In fact, there are 650 American Jews holding dual American-Israeli citizenship who are serving today in the Israeli military. People are sometimes surprised to learn that Jews serve in the American military because they think that a Jew interested in military service would do that service in Israel. That is what Beverly Wolfer-Nerenberg, discovered when her brother, Stuart, was killed in Bagdad. “I think that people overlook the fact that Jews living in this country are patriotic and do have a sense of duty and gratitude and are grateful for what this country has given to us over the years,” she said.”
It is important to remember that American Jews have also served proudly in the American military these past twelve years. As of 2011, 1500 Jews were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, making up about 1% of the total American deployment. Thirty eight Jewish men and women have died in Iraq and in Afghanistan since the United States since the war began in Afghanistan in 2001. One of them is Airman First Class Mathew Ryan Seidler. Mathew was 24 years old when he was killed in Helmand province in Afghanistan. He was buried last January 17 at Arlington Memorial Cemetery. According to his Bronze Star citation, Seidler and his team, charged with clearing a safe path for a 21-vehicle convoy in Helmand, had neutralized two roadside bombs when a third exploded. Seidler and two others were killed. "Matt followed his dream," his father said. Defusing the improvised explosive devices that have been the signature weapon of the enemy in Afghanistan "was his calling." “The Explosive Ordinance Disposal units make up 1 percent of the Air Force,” noted Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro at Mathew’s funeral, “but accounts for 25 percent of the casualties.” "Matt knew this, and yet he still did it," Rabbi Shapiro said. "That's who Matt Seidler was. He was strong-willed. He was full of conviction for his values and stood up for what he believed in. … He wanted to give as much as he possibly could to help his country." Airman First Class Mathew Ryan Seidler, may his memory be a blessing, is just one of the thousands of Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country these past 11 years. Just as we remember those Israeli soldiers who die for the defense of Israel, we must not forget the many Jews who serve with the U.S. military, just as bravely and with just as much at stake. Indeed, we must not forget any of the Americans who fought and died to make this country the shining beacon of freedom that it is today. Memorial Day Prayer “A Prayer for Memorial Day” Based upon a prayer written by Rabbi Matt Friedman Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu — Our God and God of our ancestors, As we approach Memorial Day, may we honor and remember those who died that we might live in freedom. We remember our departed loved ones gone on before. Those that we honor will be a part of our lives forever. Watch over those who defend our nation. Shield them from harm and guide them in all their pursuits. Grant their commanders wisdom and discernment in their time of preparation and on the battlefield. Should battle erupt may their victory be swift and complete. May the loss of life for any of your creations be avoided. Grant healing to those who are wounded and safe redemption to those who fall into enemy hands. For those who have lost their lives, grant consolation and Your presence to those who were close to them. We also ask that you stand with our President and all our military leaders. Guide them in their decision making so that Your will is implanted within their minds. May it be Your will that world hostilities come to a rapid end And that those in service are returned safely to their families. We pray that freedom will dawn for the oppressed and Fervently we hope that the vision of Your prophet will come to be, “Let nation not lift up sword against nation nor learn war anymore.” May this vision come to pass speedily and in our day, Amen.