By:Gary Spruch Wednesday, December 19, 2007
More than 140,000 people in the past month have clicked their way to a dramatic YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZihm6VlYjo) about a historic Jewish religious service led by a Brooklyn-born U.S. Army chaplain.
The video tells how, on October 29, 1944, as artillery shells exploded in the distance, Chaplain Sidney Lefkowitz led the first Jewish service for advancing Allied soldiers broadcast from liberated German soil.
Two weeks before that day came a momentous turning point in the history of freedom: â€œAt 10:30 this morning we crossed the border â€¦ now, at last, we are in Germany itself,â€ writes the chaplain in his diary.
â€œOur first act, after setting up, was to have a snapshot made of our Jeep, flying the flag of the Jewish chaplain.â€
At the historic service he led, the rabbi raised a flag of hope for many. He sent a powerful message to a world wearied by four years of cataclysmic war.
And through the plaintive chanting of the Ein Kelokeinu prayerand the other prayers he led that day, he sent a message, too, to Jews everywhere, that the Jewish people would live again, that the Nazi regime of genocide â€“ and the world of hate, slavery, and murder it created â€“ would be trampled underfoot.
In a booming, sonorous voice clearly heard on the video, Rabbi Lefkowitz proclaimed: â€œThe light of religious freedom has pierced through the darkness of Nazi persecution. Freedom of conscience again exists in the land which had been denying men that.â€
â€œThe eternal truth has lived through,â€ declared the chaplain, â€œand will outlive the fanatical power which fought to destroy it.â€
â€œThe service at Aachen certainly marked the beginning of a new day, but only after a most horrendous night,â€ explained Professor Barry Lynn, president of the United States Commission on Military History.
â€œWe proudly remember Chaplain Sidney Lefkowitz,â€ said Chaplain (Major General) Douglas L. Carver, Army Chief of Chaplains. â€œThe service he conducted stands as a great moment in history.â€
Indeed, immediately after NBC broadcast the service, numerous articles about it appeared in newspapers across the country. The reaction of the rabbiâ€™s home synagogue, Beth Sholom, in Brooklyn, was characteristic.
Rabbi Lefkowitz (in tallit, wearing eyeglasses) leading historic prayer service. (National Archives)
The congregation sent him a letter telling him: â€œWe were thrilled to hear your voice on such a memorable occasion and we are not ashamed to tell you that the tears flowed when we heard the boys sing.â€ They expressed their hope that â€œvictory for righteousness will very speedily prevail and you and all the boys will be home once again.â€
After the war, Rabbi Lefkowitz moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where his daughter, his grandson, and his great-grandchildren live today.
The rabbiâ€™s daughter, Ann Lentz, said that a belief in God and man and a fiery passion for liberty drove her father all the years of his life.
She recalled how, as a girl, sneaking around her parentsâ€™ attic, she discovered and opened a locked piece of her fatherâ€™s luggage.
In it she found a collection of articles from the war, including, to her horror, photos her father had taken of prisoners at Camp Dora, near Nordhausen, a Nazi concentration camp.
During walks with Ann, late in his life, he told her of the sadness he carried as a result of the terrible things he had seen as a chaplain.
â€œBut no one ever saw his sadness,â€ said Ann, â€œand he turned it to the good, by transforming it into sensitivity to others.â€
To be sure, it was the rabbiâ€™s sensitivity and compassion for others that prompted the American Jewish Committee â€“ which co-sponsored the broadcast from Germany and produced the video about it â€“ to recently name an international humanitarian award in his honor.
The organization will present the award annually to an individual who, like Rabbi Sidney Lefkowitz, has made outstanding contributions to advancing the great ideals of mankind.
Just as Rabbi Lefkowitz in 1944 inspired a nation, he is inspiring many thousands today through the unusually popular YouTube video that tells of the historic service he conducted.
Gary Spruch is assistant director of Publications at the American Jewish Committee and editor of its quarterly newsletter, AJC Today.