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Sacrifice, Courage and Healing

What follows is my Yom Kippur Morning sermon.

On this Yom Kippur morning I wish to tell but one story. I hope that it offers insights into the meaning of being both an American and a Jew. I hope as well that it offers a measure of healing during these tumultuous and fractured times. It is the story of William Shemin.

Here is his story. William Shemin was born in Bayonne, New Jersey on, October 14, 1896 to a Jewish family who had recently emigrated from Russia. During his teenage years, Shemin played semi-pro baseball for the Bayonne Sea Lions. He graduated from the New York State Ranger School in 1914, and went on to work as a forester in in the Adirondacks. After the United States entered World War I, Shemin enlisted in the Army and served in the 47th Infantry Division. On August 7, 1918, his unit battled the Germans in France. For those who may have forgotten their World War I history, that war was marked by soldiers charging out of their trenches at the enemy’s trenches. Often only 100 to 200 yards separated the American trenches from the Germans. On August 7th, Shemin left the cover of his platoon's trench alone and crossed no mans land to rescue wounded comrades. He reportedly ran over 100 yards in each direction, all the while coming under heavy machine gun fire. He rescued three fellow soldiers.

And then, after his officers were killed or wounded, Shemin took command of the platoon until he was wounded three days later. If not for his leadership the platoon might have suffered even more casualties. His commanding officer wrote the following about his actions: "With the most utter disregard for his own safety, Shemin sprang from his position in his platoon trench, dashed out across the open in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine gun and rifle fire." He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. After the war Shemin went on to get a degree from the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University (Go Orange!) where he played on the varsity football and lacrosse teams. After graduation, he started a greenhouse and landscaping business in the Bronx where he raised three children: Elsie, Ina and Manny. William Shemin died in 1973.

Elsie and her sister Ina remember many things from their youth. They recall that their home was at times run like an army platoon. Their beds were always to be made with hospital corners; the American flag was always to be respected. He never saw this country’s faults, only its virtues. His unit’s ivy leaf insignia became the logo for the landscaping company he built. Their dad was a proud Jew and a devoted American patriot. When World War II broke out he pleaded with the Army to ignore his war wounds and allow him to enlist. They also recall that their dad’s best friend, and his war buddy, was a man named Jim Pritchard. For many years Jim was a regular visitor. He and Shemin used to retreat to the back of the greenhouse and comfort each other about the horrors they experienced in battle. Despite the fact that Jim was a Christian and Shemin a Jew they were the closest of friends. In fact Jim was the first man that Shemin saved on that August day when he ran from the cover of his trench. And it was from Jim that Elsie and Ina learned that there dad was truly a hero. Jim used to say, “If not for your dad I would have been killed. The only reason your dad was never awarded the Medal of Honor was because he is Jewish.” Their dad never spoke about his actions. The real hero never sees himself as a hero; he never describes his actions as heroic deeds. He does not worry about accolades. He thinks little about a legacy. It is for others to tell the story. William Shemin would say to his kids when they wondered why he was not upset about being denied the nation’s highest honor, “I was 19 years old. Don’t worry about it Elsie. The Service Cross is enough.” He never once expressed the thought that an injustice was done to him. He had an unshakeable faith in America. He believed in service. He was forever devoted to the military. He embodied sacrifice. Over time, and after successive moves, the Pritchard and Shemin families lost touch with each other. Back then, if you can still remember the days before email and cellphones, when people moved their phone numbers changed as well.

Elsie would not forget the story. She would not let it go. If you were to meet Elsie you would soon come to realize that courage is perhaps not learned but instead genetic. So here is her story of heroism. President Obama, in one of his efforts to make amends for past racism, instructed the Armed Forces to reexamine cases where soldiers were denied the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, because of discrimination. But the legislation only reached back to World War II. A number of soldiers were finally given the recognition they deserved, although many posthumously. You should know that only 3500 soldiers have ever been given this award since it was created during the Civil War. The requirements are stringent. One must go above and beyond the call of duty and place oneself at great risk of being killed or injured. There must also be eyewitness testimony supporting the claim.

The Shemin family is a courageous bunch. Elsie and the Shemin family had to fight for the legislation to look back to World War I. The first attempt at passing this legislation failed. Senator Chuck Schumer got involved. The legislation was passed. William Shemin’s war record was reexamined. There were maps. There were eyewitness reports. There were letters of praise from his commanding officers. But somewhere in the chain of command there was antisemitism. And because of this the Medal of Honor was never awarded to Sergeant William Shemin.

Then on June 2nd of last year President Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to William Shemin’s two surviving children: Ina and Elsie. They were surrounded by some 60 descendants of William Shemin. The President said, “It’s never too late to say thank you.” It’s never too late to say thank you.

One might think that this is a fitting conclusion to this story, but it does not end there. The next day Jim Pritchard Jr., the son of the man who William Shemin saved, was reading The New York Times and stumbled upon the story about World War I and a man who was finally given his proper recognition nearly 100 years later. He recognized the name. He was raised on the story of William Shemin. Remember this name always, he was told. If not for him, you would not be here. Jim filled in the details that the hero would not tell. His father recounted: “My arm was shot through the bone by the machine gun fire and I was bleeding profusely. I could not move. I was trapped in no man’s land. I thought I was going to die. When all of sudden my best friend Bill appears at my side. He picks me up and carries me back to our side. And then he runs out and pulls back two more guys. They throw me in the ambulance and on the way to the hospital the three other guys in the ambulance die. The hospital is wall-to-wall beds. There is only one nurse and one doctor. I cannot see because of the blood pouring into my eyes. The nurse checks my id and thinks that I am the son of the doctor who is missing in action because we happen to have the same last name. She screams, ‘It is your son. It’s your son.’ I am not his son but he works on me first and I survive.” The father’s story is retold by the son. He was told, “Remember the name William Shemin.”

Jim tells his granddaughter who is in college and getting her degree in journalism to track down the Shemin family who he thinks are probably still in Washington DC. She calls the White House press office. They are at first skeptical and then hesitant, but after confirming the details, give her Elsie’s hotel information. Elsie is thrilled to reconnect with what her family deems long lost relatives. The Shemin and Pritchard families are reunited.

I promise this is all true. And how do I know all these details? Bill Shemin’s daughter, Elsie, is a contemporary of my parents who sits with them in our synagogue in St. Louis. Her son and I spent time together in the principal’s office in Hebrew School. Elsie now walks with the aid of a walker but I can report she is still always charging ahead. She once volunteered with the IDF. She helped rescue Ethiopian Jews, using her nursing skills to help these needy immigrants. Another time she secured food and supplies for those besieged in Sarajevo. Of course she flew there to make sure that the donations arrived safely. These days she runs an animal rescue service. I told you, courage is hereditary.

A few weeks ago I was invited to attend the unveiling ceremony for the special Medal of Honor headstone at the Baron Hirsch cemetery in Staten Island. The stone is quarried from Vermont and the lettering is etched in gold. The honor guard stayed after the ceremony to take pictures. They too have never seen anything like this. Even though there were three rabbis there (that would be including Susie and me) and a number of army officers Elsie ran the ceremony. In addition to chanting psalms, reciting the kaddish, hearing taps played by a trumpet player, and being surrounded by veterans and soldiers, the most moving part of the ceremony was when Jim Pritchard spoke. He stood there in that Jewish cemetery and offered gratitude for his life and the lives of his children and grandchildren. There were many tears, but far more smiles and laughs. Later we shared lunch with Jim, his wife and three children. We spoke about mundane worries: investing in pensions, raising teenagers and applying to college. All the while I thought to myself if not for a moment of daring, a split second decision of heroism, this meal would never have occurred. These worries, these laughs, these cries would never have been shared. I would not have gladly endured driving to Staten Island, and back, on a weekday morning no less, if not for William Shemin’s bravery.

At the cemetery Elsie spoke about another hero. She spoke of Private Henry Johnson. Johnson also fought in World War I and was also denied the Congressional Medal of Honor. Johnson fought with the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-Black National Guard unit. Even though trained for combat they by and large were assigned support roles until later in the war. Then their unit was transferred to the French and placed under French command. The unit of Black soldiers and French officers fought in some of the most ferocious battles of the war. And what was Johnson’s daring? During night sentry duty on May 15, 1918, Private Johnson helped his regiment repel a surprise attack by a dozen German raiders. With only a knife, and even though himself wounded, he single-handedly held off the attackers, and preventing the capture of a wounded fellow soldier. He was immediately awarded France’s highest military honor. But the United States Army did not even award him the Purple Heart, the medal given to soldiers wounded in combat. Because of his 21 combat wounds and because the army refused to provide him with the benefits given to wounded veterans he was unable to work and hold a job after the war. He died ten years later, penniless and by some reports an alcoholic. He married briefly and then divorced. He left no children.

On the same day that William Shemin was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor President Obama also awarded the medal to Private Henry Johnson. He was awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. To accept the award was a representative of the New York National Guard. But there were no family members. On one side an official representative of a soldier’s former unit; on the other some 60 family members of William Shemin.

Elsie made this pledge. There, standing at the Baron Hirsch cemetery, she pledged: “Private Johnson’s story will become part of our family’s story. His narrative is now bound to my father’s. We have adopted his memory.” And come this spring the Baron Hirsch cemetery will plant a tree in memory of Private Johnson. He is buried in Arlington.

In a year when we have seen how deep seated the racial divisions are within our society, how they can bubble up from beneath the surface and explode out into the open, perhaps we need to look to this cemetery for healing and this one extraordinary Jewish family for guidance. I don’t care if you are a Democratic or a Republican, if you think it’s their fault or our fault, but we should be able to agree that we must come to terms with the racial divides that threaten to rip us apart. There is a problem in our country. And we better get around to repairing it. But on this Yom Kippur I am not going to offer an analysis or even venture solutions.

All I offer is a story.

If you are looking for greatness, if you are looking for healing look no further than Staten Island and the Baron Hirsch cemetery.

Perhaps there we can rediscover the courage we require, and the strength we most certainly need, to repair these wounds and mend these fissures. Perhaps there we can find the courage and chutzpah that is supposed to be our inheritance.

Let us recall that accolades may never follow such heroics. If we are to be heroes it will be for others to tell. It might take another hundred years to earn any recognition, but that should not matter. The work needs to get done right now. And we are in need of some courage.

If you are looking for courage, turn toward Staten Island. If you are searching for healing, then look no further than a single grave, and a newly planted tree, in the Baron Hirsch cemetery.