It started with an e-mail.
A few years ago, Stacey Dinner-Levin, of St. Paul, received an e-mail that had been passed on from co-workers. The e-mail included a photo showing wreaths placed on graves at Arlington National Cemetery with a subject line similar to “Isn’t this beautiful?”
“I remember responding with an ‘Oh my god, there are Jews buried there,’” Dinner-Levin recalled, “‘I hope that they’re not putting these on Jewish graves.’”
In December 2010, Dinner-Levin saw a report about the organization behind that e-mailed photo — Wreaths Across America (WAA) — that lays wreaths on graves in national cemeteries throughout the United States. As she watched with her son, she wondered aloud if the organization lays wreaths on Jewish graves.
“Just as I said that, the camera panned and they showed a wreath on a Jewish grave,” she said.
Wreaths Across America has been laying wreaths in national cemeteries for 20 years and coordinates ceremonies in all 50 states to take place on the second Saturday in December. Each year, a specific section of each participating cemetery is designated and volunteers lay wreaths on the graves there.
At Fort Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul, a wreath was placed on the grave of Anna Franks, the wife of H.J. Franks, of the U.S. Navy. Her grave is marked with a Star of David. (Photo: Courtesy of Stacey Dinner-Levin)
According to a frequently asked question about Jewish graves on its Web site, the organization says it “works closely with the Cemetery Administrators, and members of each community to honor our veterans in the way that most appropriately recognizes their service, our diversity and unification as Americans.”
Dinner-Levin wasn’t convinced, so she posted her concerns to the organization’s Facebook page on Dec. 3 — one week before the wreath-laying ceremonies were scheduled.
“My family was shocked and saddened to see a wreath being placed on the grave of a Jewish soldier. PLEASE recognize our veterans come from many traditions and customs, and can no longer speak for themselves!” Dinner-Levin wrote in part.
Dinner-Levin received feedback from others on the site — some were respectful, others were not. Among those who appreciated her post was a Christian woman. Both she and Dinner-Levin sent e-mails to WAA, asking that the group be respectful of non-Christian soldiers, including Jews, Muslims, atheists and others.
According to Dinner-Levin, the responses she received from the organization were unsatisfactory and “inauthentic.” The group’s media representative told Dinner-Levin that the symbols were holiday wreaths, not Christmas wreaths; that it’s an honor for all soldiers to receive a wreath; and that some Jewish family members appreciated the gesture.
“Sure enough, there are Jews who eat pork… but you can’t all of a sudden decide that pork is now kosher for everyone because some Jews decide to indulge in it,” Dinner-Levin said. “When it comes to the dead who can’t speak for themselves, and when it comes to our veterans who fought for freedom of speech and freedom of religion, this to me crosses a line… No veteran should be afraid of being buried in a national cemetery, that [their] grave might be violated in a way that he or she didn’t choose.”
This year, according to MinnPost.com, a group of 30 volunteers with ties to the University of Minnesota laid 50 wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery — in a section containing the remains of Civil War veterans and African-American soldiers. Volunteers also laid wreaths at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul.
Ben Neff’s grave at Fort Snelling, marked with a Star of David, also received a wreath. (Photo: Courtesy of Stacey Dinner-Levin)
Dinner-Levin brought her concerns to Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker, of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul. He contacted Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC). Both Stock Spilker and Hunegs contacted Chaplain Donald Mikitta, of the Minnesota Wing Civil Air Patrol, which took the lead in laying wreaths at Fort Snelling.
In a response to Hunegs, Mikitta said that he contacted his “National Headquarter coordinator to ensure that the membership is not just motivated to honor the fallen, but also is sensitive to your concern.”
In a second e-mail, Mikitta noted that the concern had been raised in previous years and that the local coordinator had reached out to local synagogues — where “he found the community to be split, even within synagogues.”
“Also we are committed to rectifying… [any] offense for any grave that is marked in error, by a personal apology, and removal of the offending wreath,” Mikitta wrote.
But when Dinner-Levin and her husband visited Fort Snelling days after the ceremony, they found two Jewish graves marked with wreaths — both headstones displayed Stars of David.
Dinner-Levin has further contacted the Greater Chicago/Upper Midwest regional office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Hunegs also discussed the wreath laying with Sen. Al Franken, who “is interested in the issue.”
Reine Shiffman, a friend of Dinner-Levin and a fellow congregant at Mount Zion, also spoke out against the practice on WAA’s Facebook page. Her father, John Berdie, is buried in State Veterans Cemetery in Black Hills, N.C., and a wreath on his grave “would have upset him.”
Berdie’s grandfather founded Temple Emanuel, the first Reform congregation in Duluth, Minn., and Berdie lived a Jewish life.
“Just because he was a soldier doesn’t mean he has to give up his Jewish identity. He fought for freedom… He knew he was fighting for rights for everyone,” Shiffman told the AJW. “I don’t mean to disrespect the organization, because I think in terms of honoring Christian soldiers who wish to be honored in this way, it’s beautiful… The organization does need to figure out a way to be respectful of people who aren’t Christian.”