Captain Louis (Eliezer) Werfel, “The Flying Rabbi,” was a U.S. Army chaplain in North Africa during World War II who traveled by plane to visit Jewish soldiers at far-flung outposts throughout the region. Capt. Werfel was the only Orthodox rabbi killed in action in the war.
Born in 1916 to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Rabbi Werfel attended Yeshiva University. After getting semicha (ordination), he served as the rabbi of a small congregation in Mount Kisco, New York. He was known for his kindness and ability to connect with children and teens. His mission was to show young people the joy of living a traditional Orthodox Jewish life.
In August 1942, Rabbi Werfel enlisted as a chaplain in the United States Army. He trained at the Chaplain’s Center at Harvard and then was stationed at an Air Force Base in Florida, where he organized a huge Passover seder in 1943 for all the Jewish personnel.
Exempt from overseas duty because of an eye condition, Rabbi Werfel repeatedly applied for an overseas assignment. On August 1, 1943, he was sent to North Africa, where he served as Chaplain with the 12th Air Force Command. His territory included Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily.
Rabbi Werfel was one of the few Orthodox rabbis in the US Armed Forces. He may have disagreed with his Reform and Conservative fellow chaplains on matters of Jewish law, but believed them all to share the same mission: to provide spiritual guidance and support to all Jewish soldiers. Non-Orthodox rabbis were often surprised at Rabbi Werfel’s sophistication and broad cultural knowledge; he wasn’t the obsolete relic they might have been expecting.
Rabbi Werfel was known as the flying rabbi because he visited by plane all areas of the North African war theater. He helped Jewish soldiers get kosher food and observe Shabbat. Rabbi Werfel also spent time with Jewish communities throughout North Africa.
On December 25, 1943, Rabbi Werfel was on a small plane heading back to the base after conducting a Hanukkah service for American soldiers in Casablanca. Visibility was poor, and the plan crashed into an Algerian mountain, killing everyone on board. Rabbi Werfel was 27 years old.
At a memorial service in New York, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein read from the last entry in Rabbi Werfel’s Chaplaincy Report, written shortly before his death.”The war has brought me to changes of attitude, the full significance of which I still cannot recognize. 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.” Rabbi Lookstein added, “all planes returned – all but one…”
After Rabbi Werfel’s death, the National Jewish Welfare Board complied with his final request, for 10,000 copies, in French translation, of the Jewish prayer book. He wanted to distribute them to Jewish fighters in the Free French forces. In 1949, the United States Army dedicated a boat, the PT Werfel, in Chaplain Werfel’s honor.
For bringing Judaism to American Jewish soldiers in North Africa, and giving his life in service to his country, we honor Rabbi Louis Eliezer Werfel as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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