The John McCain I Knew

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Senator McCain expressed his appreciation for the long working relationship with Orthodox Union leaders, and his strong support for a secure Israel
29 Aug 2018

Dr. Mendy Ganchrow knew fellow Vietnam veteran Senator John McCain, and shared his memories of the courageous public servant and staunch supporter of Israel. Dr. Ganchrow, former Chief of Surgery Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, NY and Associate Clinical Professor of Surgery at NY Medical College, served as President (1994-2000) and Chairman of the Board (until 2002) of the Orthodox Union. In 1982 he organized the Hudson Valley Political Action Committee, which for a time was the largest local pro-Israel PAC in the US. In 1968, while serving as an army combat surgeon in Vietnam, he was awarded the Army Commendation Medal and served as an acting Jewish chaplain. He has been a board member of AIPAC, RIETS, JAFI, and the Jim Joseph Foundation.  Dr. Ganchrow is the author of five books: Journey Through The Minefields – From Vietnam To Washington: An Orthodox Surgeon’s Odyssey; Sasson Vesimcha: Divrei Torah On Sheva Brachot; Entering The Covenant: Divrei Torah On Brit Milah; and Coming Of Age: Divrei Torah On Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  His latest book THE FIVE DAY WAR  will be reviewed in the Fall issue of Jewish Action.

In the spring of 1982, I went to Washington for my annual 2 day “respite” from performing surgery to attend the  AIPAC policy conference. It was there that I met a young lawyer from Illinois who was running against the most ardent Arafat supporter in the House, Paul Findley. That gentleman, Dick Durbin, now a US Senator, convinced me to go back to Monsey to start a political action committee and raise funds to help send him and other pro-Israel candidates to Washington. Though at the time I was the President of the local yeshiva (ASHAR), I followed his advice and created Hudson Valley Political Action Committee (HUVPAC). It would become the largest local pro-Israel PAC at that time.

Shortly thereafter, Tom Dine, then Executive Director of AIPAC, called me in to suggest I meet a young Congressman named John McCain from Arizona. Dine predicted that he would become a Senator and possibly a candidate for President. McCain was a Vietnam War hero – a former prisoner of war from 1967-1973 – who was sure to be a future political star. To my knowledge, I was the only member of the AIPAC Board who was also a Vietnam veteran. I had served for one year as a combat surgeon and acting Jewish chaplain from 1968-9.  When I first went to meet him in his offices, we connected on the issues and our affinity was strengthened after he learned I was also a Vietnam veteran. There is a unique camaraderie felt by veterans for their fellow vets.  It was not long until Congressman McCain and Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota greeted me as their “Vietnam buddy.”

Senator John McCain, speaking at the OU Advocacy Center’s annual Mission to Washington, D.C.

This mutual respect and friendship was not simply based on battlefield memories. Beyond that, we shared a sense of deep patriotism, a love for America and a belief in American exceptionalism and its strong bond with the only democracy in the Middle East.  Israel was at the centrum of his weltaanshung predicated on a strong America and human rights. In 1986, we were supporting Congressman McCain for the Senate seat and invited him to Monsey for our HUVPAC Chanukah party. The event was at the home of Lois and Avi (a”h) Blumenfeld.  McCain’s appearance was a highlight of the many HUVPAC events we ran over our 21 years. This one stood out because of the history of our guest and deep knowledge of our most pressing issues and he left an impression on those in attendance.  Lois recently sent me a copy of the invitation from that event, recalling what a fine gentlemen he was and how her daughter Rochelle still remembers his warm personality.

Each year, I brought PAC members to Washington for a luncheon and private meetings with Senate members. John McCain always attended and welcomed our groups to his office. I frequently came to Washington alone and was always impressed with his openness and deep understanding of the issues from a strategic, military, economic and geo-political point of view.  His strong friendship with Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, known as the “Three Amigos,” created a bond that permeated their unbreakable commitment to Israel. McCain visited Israel many times and was warmly welcomed there as the friend that he was. When I became active in the OU I followed the late Sandy Eisenstadt who was a mentor to me in political action. He started bringing OU groups to Washington, which continued when I created the IPA, now the OU Advocacy Center. At that time we had expanded the Mission to Washington to include RCA, RZA AMIT and EMUNAH. McCain never failed to make time for our OU members, speaking at our luncheons and welcoming smaller groups to his office for a serious, issue-oriented give and take. McCain had no problem reaching across the aisle to obtain bipartisan support on issues.

Senator McCain and OU Advocacy Director Nathan Diament

There is a saying acharei mos kedoshim: after death, detractors sing your praise. In 2008 the NY Times had negative terms for McCain, calling him “erratic” or “aggressive.”  Today he is their hero. To me he always was a straight shooter.  If he disagreed with you he said so clearly. I never heard him complain about his Vietnam treatment. In fact, when offered an early release from POW camp because of his father’s position as an Admiral, he refused until other POWs were released. He subsequently pushed for warmer relations with Vietnam.

To those of us in the pro-Israel community, we have lost a great and true friend. May his family be comforted by the realization that John was a true patriot and hero. Those of us who met him and interacted with him will surely miss his candor and leadership.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.