Husband Norman (deceased); daughters Barbara Weismann, Sharon Downes (Stephen), Bernice Williams, Judy Goldberg (Dr. Jordan); 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren
Temple Beth Sholom
Gefilte fish for 35
For the entire month of March, May Brill has proudly been wearing her Jewish War Veterans hat every time she steps out in public. Typically, the highly active, always cheerful 91-year-old Cherry Hill resident only dons her cap for official veteran business.
The sartorial departure, she explained, is to mark an important milestone. For the first time, New Jersey has recognized March as “Women Veterans Month.” A proclamation, signed by Gov. Chris Christie, recognizes the more than 33,000 Garden State women who have served in the armed forces.
“When I read the email, I couldn’t believe it,” said Brill, a World War II veteran who holds leadership roles in local, state and national Jewish War Veterans organizations. “I’m wearing my hat every day because it means something.”
For Brill, a Philadelphia native who was 17 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, the prospect of volunteering for the war cause was both a matter of patriotic duty and a way for a poor Jewish girl to have a life adventure. The United States Women’s Reserve, better known as WAVES for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, gave her that opportunity, which in turn shaped the course of her life long after her mission was completed.
“I was a Jewish girl from Philadelphia who never left the city except to go to Atlantic City, and here I was in the service,” recalled Brill, a graduate of South Philadelphia High School For Girls.
Created to free up men for duty at sea, WAVES served an important purpose in wartime. Women took over the jobs that Navy men otherwise held on the home front. As Brill points out, the women were not considered part of the U.S. military, but auxiliary members. Volunteers could only serve for the duration of the war, plus six months, and just in the continental United States. At its peak, there were some 82,000 women in WAVES. While some professional women–including doctors, attorneys and engineers–served as officers, most worked in secretarial and clerical fields.
At 20, Brill left home. Her first stop was Hunter College in the Bronx for basic training, then on to Georgia State College for further instruction. Ultimately, she was sent to Oakland, CA, assigned to supplying the Pacific fleet and bases with necessities. She served from June 1944 through June 1946.
Besides their day jobs, the women marched in parades. Just like the men, they were expected to know about the airplanes and fleet. On her base of 400, she was one of only nine Jewish women, she said, noting that many on her base had never met a Jew before their service.
“I wore a hat and uniform and was very proud to do whatever was needed,” she said.
Back home, she went to Temple University on the GI Bill. While waiting in line to register for classes, she started talking to another female veteran, also Jewish, who introduced her to Norman Brill, a veteran of the U.S. Navy. The two hit it off and were married in 1948. The couple had four daughters together and 39 happy years of marriage until he lost a battle with cancer in 1987.
When her youngest daughter was seven, Brill went back to school to complete her degree at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University). She earned a degree in human services with a minor in gerontology at age 50 and worked for 13 years as the assistant administrator at York House, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia apartments for the elderly.
All along, the call to serve that compelled her to join the WAVES has led to numerous volunteer positions and an active life. A longtime Cherry Hill resident, she is a regular presence at the Katz Jewish Community Center, volunteering in the kitchen for senior meals, taking in numerous exercise and senior classes and as president of The Good Timers. She has also been on the board of the Fox Chase Cancer Center for 30 years and is known as the “Baby Hat Lady” for leading a local effort to knit hats sent to newborns in Israel and Virtua Hospital.
In veteran circles, she is a senior vice commander for Jewish War Veterans Post 126. Her advocacy on women’s issues led to positions in charge of women in the military statewide for JWV and on the national committee for women in service.
She also speaks whenever possible to students and adults about the history of women in the military.
“My biggest aim is to teach girls that they should be proud to be female and to encourage all people to learn about the history of the past so we can try not to repeat the bad in the future. I’m 91 years old and this is what I’m fighting for. This is why I’m still around.”