A memoir of war | January 7, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- January 7, 2022

A memoir of war

In 'Letters Home,' Palo Alto rabbi recounts his year as an Army chaplain in Vietnam

by Chris Kenrick

As a traveling chaplain in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis said he drew upon religious traditions to summon "an island of the familiar amidst the chaos of war" for Jewish service members.

But even when soldiers managed to gather for religious observance, opposition to the war was a constant source of anguish for a majority of the troops as well as for Lewis.

Lewis, who served as rabbi of Palo Alto's Congregation Kol Emeth for 33 years before retiring in 2006, looks back on those wartime struggles in his recently published "Letters Home: A Jewish Chaplain's Vietnam Memoir."

"The nation was committed to a war that was so morally questionable," he writes. "The draft called virtually every young man to serve. Most did not choose to resist. Yet they carried their doubts with them to Vietnam, where they festered.

"The toll taken by participation in the war (was) hard to underestimate."

It's taken more than five decades for Lewis to feel comfortable speaking about his time in Vietnam. Returning Vietnam service members were frequently vilified at the time, but Lewis believes "there's been a cultural shift with regard to veterans in general and Vietnam veterans in particular."

Those who served — often because they were drafted — are now judged less harshly, he told the Palo Alto Weekly.

Though he had protested the war during his student days, Lewis accepted a commission in 1969 to serve as a U.S. Army chaplain. He "struggled mightily" with the decision, but explains he ultimately accepted because of a major shortfall of volunteer chaplains — especially rabbis — and his guilt over the fact that clergy were exempt from the draft.

"I did not want to be identified with support of the war to which wearing a uniform would surely testify," he writes "Yet how could I not feel responsible for brethren who were drafted?" That central conflict tugged at Lewis throughout his two years of military service, the second of which was in Vietnam.

The 28-year-old, newly ordained rabbi had been married just one month when he was deployed to Nha Trang, South Vietnam, in June 1970 to tend to the spiritual needs of about 500 Jewish service members widely scattered over the Central Highlands. His memoir is drawn from the daily letters he exchanged with his wife, Lorri, who was living in Seattle.

Lewis carried his "chaplain's field kit" — including prayer books, candle holders and a miniature printed scroll of The Torah — as he traveled by all manner of aircraft and troop carrier to reach the sometimes extremely isolated Jews in his territory. In one "desolate post," there were only four Jews out of 1,016 men.

He quickly realized his brief prayer services were only "a pretext for the main event — an opportunity to gather and be fully present with one another. Conversations might begin with small talk but soon might touch on serious personal issues and feelings and the need for advice or intervention," he writes.

Within weeks of arriving, Lewis was summoned to conduct a memorial service for 32-year-old Richard Pearl, a married man who had been due to leave for home later that week when he was killed by a rocket explosion.

Shortly thereafter, he was called to the bedside of Lloyd Kantor, an upbeat New Yorker he'd previously met, who was hovering between life and death, with all four limbs amputated and an eye missing. He had been hit by shrapnel from two booby traps that killed two of his fellow soldiers.

"No one expected (Kantor) to come through, but he seems to have an unlimited amount of determination to make a comeback and something out of his life," Lewis wrote at the time. Kantor now lives in Arizona with his wife, Loretta, who was his girlfriend at the time of the of the explosion.

A 2020 Zoom reunion with the couple and others who'd survived the 1970 explosion prompted Lewis to revisit his Vietnam letters and write the memoir.

Among his many projects in Vietnam, Lewis worked to ensure that the weekly Friday night observance of Shabbat took place at every major base.

"Every familiar melody, each reading in Hebrew or English that resonated with memory, each exchange of simple 'Shabbat Shalom' greetings helped transform and lift that time into another welcome zone," he wrote.

He managed the importation of kosher food for soldiers who required it, with help from Jewish organizations back home. Lewis's wife even finagled 50 pounds of sliced lox and bagels for the break-the-fast at Yom Kippur, which was flown in by a supply navigator from Tacoma who carried the goods in his cockpit.

"Bagels and lox in Vietnam! This was certainly something about which to write home," Lewis wrote. "There is no way to describe the looks of amazement on the faces of those men and women as they ended the Yom Kippur fast."

Lewis was touched by countless instances of interfaith cooperation, as well as by the support he received from senior military officers that year. For the autumn Jewish observance of Sukkot, which requires the construction of a temporary hut, he was assisted by Catholics, Protestants and even a career U.S. soldier, who had been born in Germany and had served in the Luftwaffe during World War II.

At Christmas, Lewis attended his first midnight Mass. That same week, he welcomed Protestant and Catholic chaplains and two Filipino secretaries to his Hanukkah party. At Passover, he held a Seder meal for his Christian colleagues.

"Having the opportunity to witness each other's special days was so characteristic in the military," he wrote. "We worked together so closely that it is natural to be included in each other's sacred occasions."

But he was heartsick observing the suffering of the Vietnamese people, the many orphans created by the war and "the pervasive culture of sex and drugs among the GIs ... as soldiers sought relief and comfort."

Returning one evening from dinner with fellow chaplains, Lewis' jeep passed the entrance to an Army barracks where young Vietnamese men were openly offering women for the U.S. soldiers to choose among.

"The scene was a graphic picture of how our military presence corrupted both the GIs and Vietnamese families," he wrote. "It's incredible how many whores the war has produced and how much the men use them. ... I often wonder what the Vietnamese men must think of GIs and the U.S. when we have done so much damage to the women." Sexually transmitted diseases were rampant.

In lamenting the U.S. soldiers' general lack of knowledge and sensitivity toward the Vietnamese culture, he writes, "Many feel themselves to be unavoidably ugly Americans."

When his Vietnam duty ended in 1971, Lewis arrived home to a nation in such turmoil over the war that returning service members were not welcomed.

"Of course, I relished being reunited with my newlywed wife and family. Yet, in the atmosphere of war protest, I was greeted with silence," he writes.

He served for decades as rabbi at Palo Alto's Congregation Kol Emeth before feeling it was time to speak of his Vietnam service.

"Now it is different," he told the Weekly. "The moral assessment of the war has not changed, but those who served, especially during a period of the draft, are treated belatedly with respect. ... I no longer hesitate to wear a hat which identifies me as a Vietnam vet."

But 50 years have not softened Lewis' view that the war was immoral.

"I am not a pacifist when there is a need to defend oneself from harm," he said. "Yet this was a war that should have been avoided."

Contributing writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at [email protected]


Posted by Daniel Lilienstein
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 7, 2022 at 10:30 am

Daniel Lilienstein is a registered user.

I'm grateful to know this about Rabbi Lewis, and I look forward to reading more.

Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 9, 2022 at 11:51 am

Nayeli is a registered user.

Thank you for this article. What an amazing journey that Rabbi Sheldon Lewis has experienced! It's interesting how so many of our experiences have the ability to mold our views. As the old saying goes, "the only thing that we learn from history is that we [usually] learn nothing from history." I added the "usually" to that quote. I want to live my life like this rabbi so that I am one of those unusual individuals who do learn from history.

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