Excerpted from Chaplain on Wings: The Wartime Memoirs of Rabbi Harold H. Gordon.
When I was transferred from Miami Beach to become Circuit Chaplain of the North Atlantic Division of the Air Transport Command, my work became somewhat more complicated and presented special problems as far as my need for assistants was concerned. While I was flying from one North Atlantic base to another, someone had to keep activities going at my headquarters at Presque Isle for longer periods.
At Presque Isle, I had as my assistant Abe Dubow of Philadelphia, a young man not quite 30 years old, who in civilian life had alternately worked as a salesman and as a cantor. He was drawn into our work quite by accident. It seems that one day, before my arrival, a Jewish civilian from the town of Presque Isle turned up at the base to organize a religious Jewish service. The Jewish personnel was notified to come to the chapel. When they got there, someone asked, “But is there anyone who can daven?” Private Dubow, as he was then, volunteered that he was able to conduct a traditional service. By the time he finished the service, everyone in the makeshift congregation felt that here was a first-class hazzan. The men spent the rest of the evening with Dubow, singing Hebrew religious songs and singing Yiddish folk melodies.
At the time, Dubow had been waiting on tables at the officers’ mess. Thanks to a little maneuvering from the base personnel officer, Lieutenant Steward Mirman (who was Jewish himself), his job was changed to that of chaplain’s assistant with the express function of conducting Jewish services and ministering to the needs of the Jewish personnel to the best of his ability. Dubow knew his limitations and never attempted to engage in activities that were beyond his experience or skills. He knew enough to call upon the right people when help was needed. Before my arrival, he would sometimes turn to the Protestant chaplain; on other occasions, he would go to Lieutenant Mirman, or to two other officers who were keenly interested in Jewish activities: the dental officer, Captain Jack R. Kopley of Pelham, New York, and the chief dental surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel Biderman.
Thanks to Dubow’s efforts, the office set aside for the Jewish chaplain in the chapel building at Presque Island became a second home for many GIs. There they could lounge in leisure, swap stories, write letters, use the telephone to their hearts’ content, play the piano, fix a cup of tea and eat the salami and other goodies their mothers had sent them from home. That one room on the base was free from the regimentation imposed by army life. In it, a soldier could find the latest issues of such Yiddish newspapers as The Morning Journal, The Day, or the Jewish Daily Forward, of the Hebrew magazine Hadoar. One of the men, a corporal who had taught high school in civilian life, found it more convenient to spend the night in the chapel than to sleep in his own bunk. He kept the chapel lights burning far into the night while he studied the Shulhan Arukh, or leafed through a book of Jewish history. The men, half jestingly, half respectfully, referred to him as the “Lamed Vavnik”* of Presque Isle.
Irving Mendelson wrote me a letter voicing the sentiments of most of the men who came to the chapel on Presque Isle: “That office of yours in the chapel—it was a sort of club room to us boys. About the only valuable place the Jewish boys could really get together and feel that we were sort of next-door neighbors to each other…”[ Ed. Note: *The term “Lamed Vavnik” is used to refer to a Jew known as a particularly saintly human being. It is derived from the legend that at all times there are scattered throughout the world thirty-six (Hebrew: lamed vav) individuals, who, though humble and unknown, enable the world to survive because of the noble lives they lead.]
Originally published in the Shavuos 5782 Jewish-American Warrior