Mitzvah project helps veterans honor fallen soldiers

Brian Epsten with local Jewish War Veterans Joe Iken (left) and Ralph Shower.

Brian Epsten, Central Reform Congregation

Brian Epsten, soon to turn 13 and celebrate his bar mitzvah at Central Reform Congregation, will turn his special day into a tribute to others. He will honor deceased Jewish war veterans with words — and action.  

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Not only will Brian’s speech address his passion for World War II history, but he has written each of the 135 people invited to his bar mitzvah asking that in lieu of gifts to him to please send checks to Jewish Federation for the Jewish War Veterans. His goal: to raise money to purchase at least 4,000 new flags to place on the graves of Jewish veterans on Memorial Day this year. 

Brian’s fascination for World War II history was piqued when he visited Normandy a few years ago with his family – parents Todd Epsten, Sue McCollum and older brother Michael. Brian, a sixth grade student at New City School, explained, “I am fascinated with World War II and the courage shown by our soldiers. They rushed into dangerous situations and fought for us. These soldiers are my heroes and what they did for our country cannot be ignored or forgotten. I know that I would not be living here today if it weren’t for the soldiers who fought for future generations.”

Brian’s Torah portion from the “Book of Numbers” talks about Moses fighting his way out of the desert. “He tries,” said Brian, “to unite the people to start a new community.  The priestly blessing comes up a lot and that blessing is a prayer for protection.”

Rabbi Susan Talve, who discussed with Brian the connection of his Torah portion to his interest in World War II and its veterans, suggested that he make this the subject of his speech…and his mitzvah. His speech will evoke that passion. “I’m very exited to speak to my friends and family about what I stand for and to do something I care so much about – showing that we are so grateful to our deceased Jewish soldiers for what they did. A mitzvah means doing something that’s good. It should be required to give back especially to people, like our brave veterans, who basically saved us and our country.”

Once Brian decided to purchase flags to put on the graves of deceased Jewish war veterans, Ruth Lederman, Jewish Federation associate executive vice president and director of development, set up a meeting between Brian and two Jewish war veterans, Joe Iken, 87, and Ralph Shower, 94. They met at the Missouri Jewish War Veterans Post in the Federation Kopolow Building. As a result of that meeting, Brian was asked to speak at the Memorial Day Ceremony honoring deceased war veterans at the Jewish Federation Koplow Building at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 30.

Both veterans were impressed with the 12-year old who was so interested in their history and their stories. Said Shower, “Basically, Brian is making a sacrifice of all the gifts that would otherwise go to him. I’m sure his family is proud of him and the fact that he’s being so altruistic. With his contribution, we’ll now be able to afford the new flags. Combined with those we recycle, we’ll have enough flags for all Jewish graves this year.”

Iken added that “It’s amazing that a 12-year old realizes how important it is that our Jewish war veterans’ contributions to our country are not forgotten.”

On May 30, some 300 Boy Scouts will come to the Federation Building for a breakfast and they will take the flags and place them on the graves of the Jewish veterans at eight local cemeteries. At each grave, there will be two Boy Scouts who go through a ceremony with a recitation and a hand salute.

Sue McCollum, Brian’s mother, remarked that “with Brian, it’s natural to give. But it’s not so much about giving as it is about his passion. It’s the story of these veterans and the story of the war that resonates…We went to Normandy. We walked on the beaches, sat in the bunkers and felt what happened then. This is living history for Brian.”

Brian’s father, Todd Epsten, said after visiting Normandy, his son “was profoundly moved by the sense of sacrifice made by so many of that generation.”  

To donate to Brian’s cause, write a check to Jewish Federation and put on the memo line: Brian’s bar mitzvah.