By Anna Selman
On the Jewish plaque at Chaplain’s Hill, there reads a name: Rabbi Morton H. Singer, USA 17 December 1968. Weeks later, an article appeared in the Jewish Telegraph Agency titled, “NY Chaplain Killed in Vietnam, Buried in Israel”. Those eight words encapsulated the death of Rabbi Morton Singer. However, the story of his service and his life are much more remarkable.
Rabbi Morton Singer was born in New York City in 1936. Little is known about his childhood growing up in Manhattan, but we do know that he was an avid weight lifter in his youth – he was recognized as the Eastern Intercollegiate Weight Lifting Champion of 1959. He also was very active in Judo, and he would later serve on the Armed Forces Judo Team.
He went to City College of New York for his undergrad, and he later attended Yeshiva University. After obtaining his rabbinical degree, Rabbi Singer taught at a Jewish Day School for 3 years. However, according to his nephew, Jeffrey Singer, “Rabbi Singer felt a strong obligation to serve. He believed that if there were Jews someplace, he was going to help.
So, during the outbreak of the 6 Day War in Israel, it was only natural that Rabbi Singer signed right up. During the war, he served as a volunteer in the Bikkur Holim general hospital in Jerusalem. He would often volunteer to drive the ambulance to evacuate soldiers from the front lines in the West Bank. It was there that Rabbi Singer found a deep love for Israel, and he promised himself that he would move himself and his family there one day.
After coming back to the states, Rabbi Singer signed up for the US Army, and he went to Chaplains School at Fort Hamilton and basic training at Fort Benning. Alan Potkin remembered meeting Rabbi Singer at Fort Benning, “In basic training in Georgia, I met the Jewish chaplain there. He was airborne. He was a big Zionist.” From there, he went to Fort Sill shortly before deploying the Vietnam in November of 1968.
After arriving in Vietnam, Rabbi Singer was busy conducting Shabbat Services, meeting Jewish soldiers and preparing for Hanukkah. It was there that Alan Potkin met Rabbi Singer again, “I had seen him only a few days earlier when he tracked me down at the 95th Evac Hospital in Da Nang, where I had been MEDEVACed in with a severed jugular vein from a frag wound.”
On December 17th, Rabbi Singer geared up to conduct Hanukkah services for Marines stations at Chu Lai Air Base in the Quang Nam Province. The flight there was quick and easy. Rabbi Singer sang songs, ate latkes and played dreidels with a few Jewish marines. He packed up his gear, and he went to board his C123 Fairchild to go home. Seconds after takeoff, there was an explosion in the plane that left 14 dead caused by the crew placing the wrong type of fuel in the aircraft.
Marine Corps veterans Tracy Diffin was one of the first responders to the scene, “I was on Fire & Rescue Crash Crew, and was the first one there. A chopper flew overhead to keep the flames down. It was allegedly bad gas in the craft that took it down. Almost everyone died. I tried like hell to save everyone I could.”
“Growing up, I was always bothered hearing that my Uncle was killed going to do a mitzvah (conducting Hanukkah ceremonies), because when a person is going to do a mitzvah, they have extra protection from G-d. I received some form of comfort upon learning that it was only after completing the lighting on take-off from Chu Lai that this tragic event occurred,” said Jeffrey Singer, Rabbi Morton Singer’s nephew.
On January 2, 1968, Rabbi Morton Singer was buried on a hillside near Jerusalem today in accordance with his last wish. His body was laid to rest at Har Hamenuchot, a cemetery for the fallen of the Six-Day War. Funeral services were attended by the chief chaplain of the Israel Army’s Jerusalem area command, the military attache of the U.S. Embassy and relatives who live in Cholon, near Tel Aviv.
Volume 72. Number 4. Winter 2018