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D’var Torah | October 25, 2013

[by Rabbi Stanley Miles]

For those of us, age 60 and over, it is all too easy to remember where we were on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This date, just as December 7, 1941 before and September 11, 2001 after was instantly frozen in both time and memory.

When I recall the thousand days of the Kennedy presidency, I focus on the sense of change and optimism in the air. The shock of Sputnik subsided as American astronauts orbited the earth. As a Jewish teen I was enthralled by the Freedom Rides and sit ins taking place in the South. We seemed to be changing, albeit slowly, for the better; a style reflected in the Kennedy White House and the elegant words of our youngest president.

These were promising years for the American Jewish community, as well. Two active members of our community, Arthur Goldberg and Abraham Ribicoff, served in the Kennedy Cabinet. Many people were pleasantly surprised, as the reputation of the Kennedy family had been tarnished by the blatant anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi sympathies of the President’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, when he served as ambassador to Great Britain.

In this respect, the son rejected the flaws of the father, going back to the summer of 1939. John Kennedy and his older brother, Joe, traveled by car through Europe to assess the ever-darkening world situation. War was imminent; the only question was, when? The two brothers arrived in Warsaw late that summer. Around the United States Mission to Poland was a huge crowd of Jewish people, trying desperately to flee the country; hopefully to the United States.

Remember, Jewish immigration to America was virtually impossible. A draconian quota system succeeded in keeping most East European Jews out. Everyone knew the Nazis would conquer Poland soon, placing the majority of Europe’s Jews in a Nazi trap.

John Kennedy and his brother understood this dangerous situation. Not only did they understand, they acted. During 1939 and 1940 New York hosted a fabulous World’s Fair. To promote tourism, there were a large number of visas for visitors from overseas.

The Kennedy brothers asked if there were unused visas. When told that virtually none of the documents had been used they urged the staff to make them available to those Jews clamoring for escape. They knew they were breaking the law and going against State Department policy – that was not important because lives were at stake. When the staff agreed, the brothers remained to help process the applications, expediting escape from Poland for many prior to the Nazi invasion and the beginning of the Second World War. We do not know how many lives this ruse saved.

I doubt if many know this story. It came to my attention long after the Kennedy presidency. After hearing it, I had yet another reason to revere the memory of this great American as a blessing and to read his name with Kaddish on the Shabbat on or prior to November 22.

Shabbat candles should be lit on Fridays, October 25 at 6:34 p.m., November 1 at 6:26, November 8 at 5:18 p.m., November 15 at 5:13 p.m. and November 22 at 5:08 p.m. Please remember that Standard Time returns on Sunday, November 3 at 2 a.m., and clocks should be set back one hour at that time.

Editor’s note: Rabbi Stanley R. Miles, the rabbi of Temple Shalom (Reform), has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.

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