Paul Stern, commander of the Margate-based Jewish War Veterans Post 39, is a tireless servant of the troops.
Each year starting May 1, Stern sets up camp in the main entrance of the Somers Point ShopRite to ask for donations for wounded service members and veterans. Each customer, donor or not, is greeted with a smile and a few friendly words.
"Hello young lady," Stern says as a woman drops a dollar into his bucket. "Thank you so very much. Have a good day."
And it's just like that, for four hours per day, each day in May, for as long as the store will allow. This year, Stern finished his post May 22.
Stern, who lives in the English Creek section of Egg Harbor Township, is just one the post's 125 members, who each May for the past decade or so have collected donations at area businesses such as ShopRite, Walmart in Mays Landing, and Wawa in Margate.
In early June, Stern and the group leadership will meet to discuss how they will disseminate the funds to various groups and institutions, such as the Walter Reed Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.
While Stern wouldn't disclose the total amount his group usually raises, he said it's into the tens of thousands of dollars.
ShopRite is usually the most lucrative source of donations for the group, averaging $200 an hour early in the month and remaining strong through the end, but the community in general is very generous, he said.
Bernie Friedenberg, of Margate, has collected donations outside the Wawa on Ventnor Avenue in Margate for the past eight years. An Army veteran who served as a combat medic on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion and was wounded twice during the Battle of the Bulge, he knows well the importance of caring for the troops.
So too, he said, do the many donors in the community.
"Every time they put some money in my container, I say, 'Thank you.'" Friedenberg said. "They say, 'No, thank you for what you've done, and thank you for your service.' The public couldn't be nicer."
The group gives out red plastic poppy flowers, assembled by veterans in hospitals around the country, in exchange for each donation. Each May, they give out 15,000, Stern said.
The red poppy became a symbol of warfare during World War I, when, due to a combination of the release of fertilizing chemicals in combat and the churning of the ground by soldiers' feet, red poppies bloomed between trench lines.
The flower's significance was cemented in the 1915 poem "In Flanders Fields," written by Canadian soldier John McCrae. Nearly 100 years after the poem was written, knowledge of the flower's specific meaning has begun to wane, Stern said. But even without context, donors are glad to make the exchange.
"Some people walk up to me, reciting the poem, but those are the older generation," Stern said. "Most of the people, 50 and under, haven't got the faintest idea what this stands for. They buy them, they say, 'Thank you.' They know it means something."
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