On Sunday morning, March 26, before Rabbi Yehoshua Singer’s class on Pesach, I met with Stanley Schwartz at Am Hatorah in Bethesda to discuss some pictures he wanted to show me. The amazing pictures that Stan carefully removed from a very old discolored envelope were of a seder he attended in Munsan, Korea in 1953 as a 21-year-old marine from Brooklyn, New York. The pictures were a remarkable historical reminder for Stan of the “most memorable seder” he had ever attended.
Schwartz was attached to the 1st Marine Division, Wire Platoon, 10 miles from Panmunjon with the war still raging on. It had been a bitterly cold winter; sometimes the temperatures dipped to 35 degrees below zero. The military-issued clothing did very little to protect the soldiers from the brutally cold days and nights. Frostbite was common. Remarkably, the chaplain, Samuel Sobel, was able to put together a beautiful seder for all Jewish military personnel on March 30, 1953. It was an even more remarkable feat because, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported in April 1953, the chaplain was injured by shrapnel in the Battle of Vegas, the day before the seder.
Passover 1953 found six rabbis working to ensure that Jewish troops received provisions of kosher food for Passover. In Albert Slomovitz’s book “Fighting Rabbis: Jewish Military Chaplains and American History,” the author describes how hard the rabbis worked in “Operation Third Passover in Korea” to get the supplies into the country, divide them up and distribute the goods to the bases in six “mud covered jeeps.” Their mission was successful: on the night of March 30, 1953, 200 Jewish soldiers and officers from all branches of the military sat down together for a beautiful Seder. The service was held in the staff NCO mess tent. As Stan tells the story, he remembers the seder lasted about two hours and soldiers recounted the story of the Exodus from Egypt and sang the songs that were printed in the Haggadah. It is estimated that 4,000 Jewish soldiers were fighting alongside Stan during his time in Korea.
The chaplain, Samuel Sobel, was awarded the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for valor and bravery in the war. According to the Southeastern Virginia Jewish News (July 14, 2000), Sobel was honored by President Bill Clinton at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Korean War.
In an article written by David Hazzan in “Tablet Soul Mates,” November 2014, it was noted that Korea’s first semi-permanent Jewish settlement was made up almost entirely of Jewish-American servicemen who decided to stay there after the war. The famous American author Chaim Potok served as the Jewish Chaplain in Seoul and set up a Jewish worship center where military and non-military Jews could come and take part in the services. Rabbi Potok was in Korea from 1955 to 1957.
In the hour that followed my interview with Stan Schwartz, Rabbi Singer gave a class on Pesach. Rabbi Singer explained that G-d removed us from the impurity of Egypt and “bore us on an Eagle’s wings” and brought us to himself. Rabbi Singer taught us about the meaning of the parsha in Exodus 19:4. G-d, he said, chose the eagle because the eagle, fearing only arrows, carries its young on its wings. If the eagle were to suffer an injury, the young would be safe. “G-d therefore chose the eagle to express his unconditional love for us, which extends to us even though we were mired in the depths of almost the lowest step into impurity.”
After the discussion was over and I had time to digest all that I had heard that morning, I looked at the Haggadah from 1953 that Stanley Schwartz had loaned to me. There, printed on the back, was the original Seal of the United States, inspired by the Passover story and originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, on July 4, 1776: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Remembering that the Great Seal of the United States contains an eagle, I was struck by the parallels between the lesson of the Rabbi about Pesach and the war stories told to me by Stan Schwartz. Stan was a Jew serving his country in a far-off Asian land, under the symbol of the eagle, fighting against tyranny, but he was able to partake in the mitzvah of the Passover seder that commemorates our going out from Egypt after being enslaved by tyrants. Without much notice, we had to leave, and with much rebellion we untethered ourselves from tyrants to serve G-d. Without much notice and fanfare, a seder was enjoyed in Korea and conducted by a chaplain who was saved and delivered to that point in time of history “on the wings of an eagle.” Stan Schwartz is correct to remember that occasion with much pride and satisfaction.