Respectfully Paying Respects: Wreaths volunteers find way to honor Jewish veterans

Every year, part of the “holiday spirit” involves a group called Wreaths Across America placing wreaths on graves of veterans across the United States, groups like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation complaining about the Christmas symbol being placed on the graves of Jews, Muslims and non-Christians, and many Wreaths volunteers taking offense that their gesture of kindness is criticized.

That isn’t how it happened in Baton Rouge, though.

Brittney Kean of Gonzales, who is regent of the Heirome Gaines chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, was at a meeting of Children of the American Revolution when there was a discussion about working with Wreaths Across America. She has been involved with Wreaths since 2015 through Blue Star Mothers, and starting the next year, also through DAR.

In the past, Blue Star Mothers said not to place wreaths on graves with a Star of David, so they would just recite the name when at those graves, as is done for each veteran. “I also went to school with a friend who is Jewish, so I was already aware that they did not celebrate Christmas,” she said.

At this year’s CAR meeting, when they got to the instructions about Jewish graves, “the children expressed the desire to honor the Jewish servicemen as well and wanted to know if that was possible.”

As senior society president of the Thomas Jefferson Society of CAR, Kean started exploring what would be proper. “I started with my Jewish friend, who told me that it is Jewish custom to leave a stone on the graves, but she did say that she thought a flag would be okay.”

She also spoke to several members of the Unified Jewish Congregation of Baton Rouge, and received the same advice. She then spoke to Jason Matthews at the Louisiana National Cemetery and submitted two proposals — for stones or flags.

The flag concept was approved, “so the girls and I walked the whole cemetery making note of all of the Jewish graves.”

Since they found just eight, Kean’s mother came up with the idea of crocheting “stone pockets” to attach to the flag poles.

Kean said DAR’s objectives “include historic preservation, education and patriotism, WAA’s mission is to remember, honor and teach, and CAR’s mission is to train good citizens, develop leaders, and promote love of the United States of America and its heritage among young people. I am trying to bring all of this together as I lead the Thomas Jefferson Society.”

Officially, Wreaths Across America says it is not affiliated with any particular religion or political view. They follow the policies of the cemeteries that give permission for the wreaths, and tell volunteers not to place wreaths on Jewish graves, but to simply pause and pay respects. According to the organization, some Jewish families do request wreaths.

Nevertheless, MRAA has reportedly fielded thousands of complaints over the last 15 years since the program went national.

This year, Wreaths Across America distributed over 2.7 million wreaths at 3,702 participating cemeteries.

Perhaps they can all look to Baton Rouge for a model of how to honor in a way that truly pays respect to all individuals who served.