Helen Behal’s Jewish Welfare Board Uniform

Sharing the Common Wealth showcases objects, artifacts, documents, structures and buildings from the collections of PHMC.

Although the Armistice of November 11, 1918, brought an effective end to combat in World War I, many U.S. soldiers remained stationed in Europe well into 1919. In some cases, this was to maintain order while the Allies moved toward a peace treaty, but mostly it was part of a winding down process known as demobilization, which involved preparing soldiers for their imminent return to normal life in America. Social service groups played a large part in this process, sending volunteers to Europe to provide amity and entertainment for the soldiers.

One group involved in this effort was the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB), organized on April 9, 1917, shortly after America’s entrance into the war. One of the initial purposes of the organization was to support the religious needs of the 225,000 Jewish soldiers in the field by training rabbis as chaplains, sustaining Jewish chapels at installations, and ensuring that kosher foods were available. But the JWB also built 30 recreational facilities that were open to all soldiers regardless of creed. In cooperation with other groups such as the YMCA, the YWCA, the Salvation Army, and the Knights of Columbus, the JWB continued to send volunteers to Europe for social service work after the Armistice.

This JWB uniform belonged to Helen Behal (1890–1984) who served as a field representative in various locations throughout France in the spring and summer of 1919. A native of Philadelphia, she was 28 when she embarked from New York in April on the S.S. Megantic. Her work began in Paris where she lived in a dormitory for 10 days above club rooms where she and others entertained the soldiers. “Sometimes we’d just talk,” Behal wrote in a letter, “sometimes the boys would bring us things to sew. Then we’d play games or some one would play and we’d sing or dance.”

Behal moved on to the American Embarkation Centre in Le Mans, where troops passed on their way from locations in France and Germany to the coast, and throughout May and June she worked at a nearby camp where she taught soldiers to sew, maintained a collection of books donated by the American Library Association for the men, and assisted in nightly entertainment with movies, refreshments, and sometimes dancing. “Just anything,” she wrote, “to give a little of the home atmosphere to those youngsters who had been in that dreary camp for a year or more doing work that they were unaccustomed to and longing every minute to be home with their families.”

To commemorate the centennial of World War I and those who served in various capacities during and after the conflict, Helen Behal’s JWB uniform will be on display with other related artifacts in the exhibition Dressed for Service: Pennsylvanians in the Great War, opening at The State Museum of Pennsylvania on Veterans Day, November 11, 2018.

 

Kyle R. Weaver is the editor of Pennsylvania Heritage.