Chaplain Louis (Eliezer) Werfel (1916–1943) was one of only six Jewish Chaplains, the first Yeshiva College graduate (YC '37) and the only Orthodox Rabbi (Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) '40) killed in action during the Second World War. He was known as "The Flying Rabbi," a title he had earned from soldiers as he traveled by plane to Jewish airmen at isolated locations throughout North Africa. He died while serving his country after having dedicated his life to the sanctification of God's name.
Born on June 9, 1916, to immigrants who had arrived in 1906 from Pamuran in Eastern Galicia (Eastern Europe), Louis Werfel attended Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaath, and in 1933, enrolled in Yeshiva College, where he was known for his sincerity and commitment towards Orthodox Judaism. Werfel was active in student affairs, involved in the Religious Zionist Ha'Poel ha'Mizrachi movement and was a personal friend of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, the first president of Yeshiva University.
At Yeshiva College, as secretary (1936-1937) of its Student Council and at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, as president (1938-1940) of the Students of Yeshiva (S.O.Y.) organization, Werfel was very involved with two student organized publications: Hazedek (the official student newspaper of RIETS and Yeshiva College) and Hedenu (the 1936 publication in honor of RIETS' Jubilee anniversary). One Sunday in 1937, Louis met Adina Gerstel in the Yeshiva College cafeteria, (where she frequently went with fellow teachers from the Inwood Jewish Center); they were engaged in 1939, and married on September 9, 1940.
After receiving his Semikha from Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik and Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel in 1940, Werfel served as rabbi of the Mount Kisco (New York) Hebrew Congregation for less than a year. In Mount Kisco, Louis and Adina Werfel focused their attentions on the children and adolescents of the community, with whom they learned and studied, giving over the impression that a life filled with Torah and Mitzvot can be enjoyable. Afterwards, Yeshiva College sent Rabbi Werfel to serve as rabbi of Knesseth Israel Synagogue (Birmingham, Alabama) where he and his wife educated the congregation in the tenets of Orthodoxy, and established a Torah-true Talmud Torah for the children of the community. One congregant still living there, who Werfel taught how to read from the Torah, vividly recalls the sensitivity that Rabbi Werfel displayed towards preparing the youngster for his Bar Mitzvah.
Rabbi Werfel was a member of the Rabbinical Council of America and while in Birmingham, served on the National Jewish Welfare Board's Army and Navy Committee. In August 1942, Rabbi Werfel enlisted as a Chaplain in the United States Army. In his application for service, Louis Werfel wrote that he was motivated by recognition of what he considered to be his duty as a rabbi.
During November 1942, Louis Werfel trained at the Chaplain's Center at Harvard University; and afterwards, was stationed at the Boca Raton Air Force Base in Florida, where his leadership talents were recognized by his superior officers after he organized a Pesach Seder in 1943 for all Jewish personnel of the base. Even though Chaplain Werfel was exempt from overseas service because of minor physical disabilities—he had a small infection in his eye—he repeatedly placed such requests. On August 1, 1943, Werfel was sent to North Africa, where he served as Chaplain with the 12th Air Force Service Command, where his area of operations included Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Sicily.
Rabbi Werfel was unyielding in his observance as an Orthodox Jew, and while he and his Conservative and Reform colleagues were often in disagreement on many matters of theology and observance, Werfel understood that he and the Army's other 310 Chaplains were drawn together by a common vision and in a common service: to offer religious and moral guidance to all of the Jewish personnel of the armed forces. During a time when Orthodoxy was thought of as outdated, Louis Werfel, who spoke and wrote English well, could aptly speak about jazz or the Mona Lisa while remaining erudite and informed of Torah law. "That combination, at that time, was very rare," his wife Adina recalled.
While stationed in North Africa, Chaplain Werfel continued caring for the needs of the Jewish soldiers there, where he often dealt with issues such as Shabbat, Kashrut and other religious issues affecting soldiers. Werfel often spent Shabbat in various Jewish communities throughout North Africa, and on one occasion, observed an Oneg Shabbat conducted by the local Zionist youth: "It was an inspiring sight to watch those French-speaking, Sephardic-familied youngsters, about 200 of them, singing the same Palestinian songs that our youngsters sing back in the United States," wrote Werfel.
In his last report to the Chaplaincy Commission, Werfel wrote about the religious condition of the soldiers in battle: "War raised old religious problems in new guises: in one combat outfit the flight surgeon was overwrought because of an experience in his squadron. On Yom Kippur, a Jewish pilot had gone to Services in the magnificent Grande Synagogue in Tunis and spent almost the entire day in prayer, pleading for life and safety and happiness. The very next day the pilot flew away on a mission -- and never returned." Werfel's last request to the National Jewish Welfare Board was for 10,000 prayer books in French translation for Jewish men serving with the French Free Forces, whose own chaplains could not arrange for the printing of siddurim.
On December 25, 1943, the State Department sent a telegram informing Adina Werfel that, while returning from conducting a Hanukah service for American soldiers in Casablanca, the small plane carrying her husband had crashed into the Algerian mountains due to limited visibility caused by bad weather. As a young soldier serving in the American army in Oran, Algeria, Donald B. Butler was one of the soldiers who buried Chaplain Louis Werfel in North Africa with a proper Jewish burial. In 1950, as per Army regulations, Chaplain Werfel's body was sent back to America, where his wife arranged for him to be buried in the newly established State of Israel, in the cemetery in the Religious Zionist Ha'Poel ha'Mizrachi kibbutz Tirat Tzvi. At Tirat Tzvi, its school and synagogue were dedicated in Louis Werfel's memory and his name is included on the Kibbutz's memorial for soldiers killed in action.
Eulogizing him in Yeshiva's Harry Fischel Beit Midrash, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, second president of Yeshiva University, recalled how Louis Werfel, "sacrificed himself voluntarily on the altar of his God. He lived with a purpose – and died for an even greater purpose." Moses Isaacs, then dean of Yeshiva College, praised 'the Flying Rabbi' as having been a living example of the synthesis of Judaism and general culture. But perhaps the most poignant eulogy was delivered by Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, rabbi of Manhattan's Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, where he read from Rabbi Werfel's last report to the Chaplaincy Commission, written several days before his death. "The war has brought me to changes of attitude, the full significance of which I still cannot recognize," wrote Werfel. "I, who filled pacifist papers on principle when Selective Service was introduced, stood one blustering morning on a flying field and waved good luck to the planes as they rolled by for the take-off. And as I stood there waving them on, wishing them good luck, praying that every one of them would get back safely, there ran through my mind the Talmudic dictum 'Shluchei Mitzvah Ainon Nizakin...' at least that day all planes returned." At the memorial service, Rabbi Lookstein added, "all planes returned - all but one..."
In 1949, the United States Army dedicated a boat, the P.T. Werfel, in Chaplain Louis Werfel's memory and, as is customary, Adina Werfel donated a set of candlesticks for the crew to use in the dining section.
Chaplain Louis Werfel was survived by his wife Adina, who later married Rabbi Michael Bernstein, Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS; his father, Isidore; a sister, Ethel; and a brother, Pvt. Abraham Werfel. (Rabbi and Mrs. Bernstein's son, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Bernstein, is currently a professor of Bible at Yeshiva College.)