This post was written by Marcia Kolko. Marcia is an archives specialist in the National Archives Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch.
September represents one of the holiest months of the year for members of the Jewish faith, as it includes the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is worth noting then, that the Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch has within its holdings a 1969, color film entitled A Mitzvah to Serve.
Wikipedia will tell you that the Hebrew word “mitzvah” is often defined as a moral deed performed as a religious duty. A more cultural description of the word might be an act of human kindness. Either use of the word is apparent in this orientation film which presents the meaning, responsibilities and value of Jewish lay leadership in the armed forces. Scenes examine how American Jewish servicemen participated in (and, in the absence of a rabbi, often led) holiday and weekly religious services in Vietnam, as well as other postings around the globe. According to documents in the production file, the film was intended to recruit servicemen of all faiths to participate in the lay leadership program, as well as serve as a resource for Christian Chaplains who had “the prime responsibility for the spiritual life of Jewish soldiers.”
In interviews throughout the film, soldiers relate how the services they attended strengthened their Jewish identity and provided a community for them in an otherwise gentile environment. The film’s title A Mitzvah to Serve is undoubtedly making a reference not only to the importance of volunteering for military service, but also to the responsibility and kindness of leading others at a religious gathering in the absence of a rabbi.