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Rockefeller Lauds Jewish Contribution to American Experience

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“To bigotry no sanction; to persecution, no assistance.” These words addressed by President George Washington to the Newport Hebrew Congregation some 200 years ago were echoed this week by Vice-President Nelson A. Rockefeller at this city’s historic Touro Synagogue.

Speaking from the pulpit of America’s oldest Jewish house of worship, the Vice-President declared that the “Jewish contribution to the American experience is beyond calculation–and out of all proportion to the numbers of Jewish Americans involved.” He observed that “We could not subtract the Jewish contribution from American life without impoverishing our science, our literature, our art, our commerce, our law, indeed, without vastly diminishing America.”

Rockefeller’s address was the high point of a day-long celebration Sunday of the Bicentennial sponsored by the Synagogue Council of America, which was at the same time marking its own 50th anniversary. President Ford, who was originally scheduled to be the guest of honor, sent a message reaffirming the “splendid tradition” of religious and personal liberty contained in Washington’s letter of Aug. 17, 1790.

The full text of the letter was read to those gathered inside the “noble edifice” built in 1763 in the 18th century Georgian-style, by Sol. M. Linowitz, former United States representative to the Organization of American States and chairman of the SCA’s Bicentennial-Jubilee Committee.

As Rockefeller, his head covered by a skull cap, listened from his seat at the sanctuary’s eastern wall, the traditional place of honor for congregational dignitaries, with Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, SCA president, beside him, Linowitz made reference to the secret underground passage beneath the synagogue’s reading desk allegedly constructed by Touro’s Spanish-Portuguese founders whose Old World heritage of terror and persecution had conditioned them to provide a channel of escape. “The Jews of America have never had to use this or any other channel of escape.” Linowitz affirmed. “Our mutual commitment promises there will be no such need in the future.”

JUDAISM’S MORAL VISION

Noting the relationship and similarity between Judaism’s “moral vision of mankind” and the “moral philosophy of our nation’s founding fathers,” Rockefeller called for a reaffirmation of these “basic concepts” in our time. His audience comprised the religious and lay leadership of the SCA and its constituent bodies, members of the Rhode Island Jewish community and special guests.

Rabbi Henry Siegman, SCA’s executive vice-president, lauded the fact that despite “theological differences” and “internal dissention” through groups such as the Synagogue Council of America the American Jewish community has learned to “counsel together” and to “engage the conscience of America on issues of profound moral importance–the struggle for civil rights, the anguish of Soviet Jews, the vulnerability and peril of the people of the State of Israel, the immorality of wasteful abundance.”

Before the ceremony in the small colonial synagogue–now a national historic site–whose tall columns and candle-lit candelabra gave it an air of restrained elegance, the participants had attended a symposium of “The American Jewish Experience: Personal Perspectives” in which Dr. Arthur F. Burns. Dr. Louis Finkelstein, Dr. Martin Meyerson. Bess Myerson, and Elie Wiesel spoke of what it was like to be a Jew in this country.

CARDINAL SIN OF AMERICA

Most of the participants shared the view of Finkelstein, Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, that the cup of life in America should be viewed not as half-empty, but as half-full. “This country not only saved our lives,” he said. “It also saved our souls.” But the author, Elie Wiesel, recalling the Holocaust, termed the United States’ indifference to the plight of European Jewry during World War II the “cardinal sin of our country.” He took the leadership of the American Jewish community to task for not doing enough for their European brethren. He said that in his town in Europe “every Shabbat we made a misheberach (blessing) for Roosevelt. Little did we know that he knew so much and did so little.”

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