by Seymour "Sy" Brody
The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and other newspapers, when writing about Captain Elkan Voorsanger, referred to him as the "Fighting Rabbi" of World War I. He got this title as a result of serving as the senior chaplain of the 77th Division, a melting pot of religions and nationalities. Whenever the 77th went out of the trenches to attack the German soldiers, Captain Voorsanger always went over the top with his men. He was the division burial officer, school and entertainment officer, and the Jewish Welfare Board adviser to the 77th Division.
Captain Voorsanger had the highest praise for the men in the 77th, He was quoted as saying in an interview that the "Jewish men in this division were good soldiers, brave, fearless, and resourceful. They fought, knew how to fight and were glad to do it."
Voorsanger came in contact with the JWB as a soldier-recipient when the organization supplied him with an automobile, making it possible for him to visit Jewish fighting men. JWB also supplied him with material and money to help him serve the soldiers.
He resigned his position as the assistant rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth, St. Louis, to enlist in the Army as a buck private in May, 1917. He was with the first 750 American soldiers to go overseas to France to fighht the German Army. He quickly rose up the ranks to sergeant, lieutenant, chaplain, captain and senior chaplain of the 77th Division.
Captain Voorsanger found himself the chaplain of not only Jewish soldiers but non-Jewish soldiers as well. He gave prayer and counseling to all who needed it as they lay wounded or dying. He often said in speeches "that each chaplain was responsible for the religion of every man and it didn't matter to us how a man prayed but that he prayed."
He related how a Catholic chaplain organized Yom Kippur services for Jewish servicemen in a ruined cathedral. Captain Voorsanger arrived late because he was organizing Yom Kippur for other Jewish soldiers at the front.
As the JWB adviser, he organized many activities and services not only for the Jewish soldiers but also for the others. He found that if there were 200 Jewish soldiers in a detachment, 200 would come to services - not because they had to, but because they wanted to be there to pray.
It was during the Argonne engagement that Captain Voorsanger was wounded and received the Purple Heart. He also received the French Croix de Guerre and was recommended for the Distinguished Service Medal.
After the war, he worked with the JWB, became field director for the American Relief Committee and he was active in many Jewish organizations. Captain Elkan Voorsanger died on April 3, 1967. He will always be remembered as the "Fighting Rabbi" of World War I.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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