At Touro, Loeb Honors Ideals

On The Go

By Masha Leon

Published September 05, 2009, issue of September 11, 2009.
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On August 24, I finally caught up with Ambassador John Loeb Jr. (who spent the summer in Rhode Island) to chat about the visitors center he built adjacent to Newport’s Touro Synagogue. Honored in July as the “2009 John Clarke Laureate” by the members of the society of John Clarke, co-founder of the state of Rhode Island, and co-founder of the second Baptist church in America, Loeb delivered an acceptance speech that spelled out the incentive for the center. He also touted an August 16 reading by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, at the Touro Synagogue, of George Washington’s famous 1790 letter, “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I.,” which promises religious toleration in the new country. Loeb posited: “Why would a nonobservant Jew from New York City have spent 12 years and a significant sum [$12 million] to build a small visitors center on the campus of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue [founded in 1658] where only Hebrew was spoken in the liturgy, and the ritual observance originated in the Sephardic tradition?…. I have never been [a] bar mitzvah and had never even been to a synagogue until my late teens, when I attended the funeral of my great-uncle Herbert Lehman, a nonobservant Jew who had once been governor of New York and later a U.S. Senator.”

Loeb recalled: “When I was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s [and] Hitler’s rise to power fomented an enormous amount of antisemitism in our own country… at the private school I attended, I faced animosity toward Jews…. In 1944, at one of the Saturday night movies held at my school, we saw the first newsreels of the Holocaust and the death camps…. Believe it or not, the entire student body cheered! Some of the students said to me afterward, ‘Well, we don’t like Hitler, but at least he killed the Jews.’ 

“I was stunned by that awful night at my boarding school. I had always thought of myself as an American first and foremost, and could never have believed that my Jewish heritage would cause me to feel like an unwelcome outsider. I was also confused because my grandmother’s [Adeline Moses] ancestors had been in this country since the 1600s. She had been a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and her family had fought on both sides of the Civil War.”

Recalling his first visit to Newport in 1950, when he became acquainted with Touro Synagogue and the old Jewish burial ground, Loeb noted, “It was [then] I discovered that some of my ancestors [had been] part of the Newport Colonial Jewish community. 

“A major undertaking in my life has been to bring to public awareness the ideals of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In 1997, while considering what could be done to make [the annual reading of Washington’s letter] better known, I was approached by [members] of the Touro Synagogue Foundation and the Touro congregation to purchase the land abutting Patriots Park and the synagogue. They wanted to open a visitors center on these properties. I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that the purchase and gift of the properties to the congregation would be the very meaningful project that I had been looking for… and I committed my foundation’s resources to building the visitors center and its exhibition
and to restoring Patriots Park.”

Loeb, a contributor to the recently published hefty tome “An American Experience: Adeline Moses Loeb (1876-1953) and Her Early American Jewish Ancestors,” which has an introduction by Eli Evans and was published by the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, commented on Whitehouse’s reading of Washington’s letter. Whitehouse, who Loeb said, “was the first person to enter the visitors center at its August 2 opening,” had prefaced his reading of Washington’s letter with: “As a Rhode Islander, my visits to Touro always stir a deep sense of pride in the long tradition of religious freedom upon which our state was founded…. Starting with the arrival of Roger Williams after his banishment from Salem, Massachusetts, in1634, for ‘spreading diverse, new and dangerous opinions,’ our ‘Ocean State’ has always been a sanctuary for religious tolerance. Today, Touro Synagogue stands as a reminder of this historic past, a handsome landmark, and a living expression of our Jewish community’s faith.” 

Loeb amplified: “In his letter on behalf of the Jewish congregation, Moses Seixas, one of my early cousins in Newport, poured out his community’s gratitude to the president for the establishment of a new government and the hope that the new country would accord all of its citizens respect and tolerance, whatever their background or religious belief.” Loeb added, “The letter moved the great statesman, and on August 21, 1790, the president responded with what is now known as ‘The George Washington Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport.’” Loeb said of Washington’s letter, “I believe this letter is as important as Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.’ ” 

Loeb continued: “The key thought in Washington’s letter that touches me so is:

“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights…. For happily the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.’”

From now on, the Seixas letter and Washington’s letter — which had been publicly read every year at the Touro Synagogue in a public ceremony — will be read annually at the visitors center. 

When, at the end of our conversation, I asked Loeb if there was anyone among the family’s younger members who might carry on his family’s historic “torch,” he reflected: “I think that one person would be my son, Nicholas. He has a deep sense of history…. Yes,” he paused, “I‘d say he is interested in the family history.”


“Have I got a story for you!” Leah Kaplan said to me at my mention of the Forward. We were at ORT America’s August 11 Summer Cocktail Reception for Business Professionals at the rooftop Terrace Club at Rockefeller Center. Kaplan, whose husband, Herb Kaplan, is ORT’s senior director of development, was ecstatic: “You’ll never guess how important the Forward was for our family!” So convoluted a saga that I said, “Let’s talk later.” Kaplan began: “In 1903, my grandmother, Esther-Reyzl from Chereskoye, Minsk Gubernie, kissed her parents, sister and brother goodbye.” Taking her 7-year-old son with her to Antwerp, she landed at Ellis Island, but her husband forgot the date of her arrival! Oy! Flash forward: With husband Yudl (now Julius), the family settled on [Manhattan’s] Lower East Side. Years passed. Little contact with family. Esther-Reyzl had daughter Marian — my mother — she marries, has daughter me [Leah].” Like a waterfall, the story gushes on. “World War II… communist era, Cold War. One day the phone rings! A cousin just read in the Jewish Daily Forward a poem by a Mendl Lifshitz. ‘Could this be my brother?’ he asks me. ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ I replied. ‘They are all dead, killed.’ But he insisted I call the Forward. Someone at the paper suggested I write a letter and the Forward would forward it. Back came a letter in English. ‘I was 3 years old when my older brother Louis left for America. A brother in Moscow was alive. Sister Rivka was alive in Minsk! Vladimir, poet Mendl’s son, is alive. If not for the Forward, the family would never have been reunited!”

A week later, I spoke to Herb Kaplan, who was gung-ho about ORT’s resiliency. “We have been transforming lives for 130 years.… In 1880, we started providing personal dignity through handicrafts — dressmaking, carpentry, tailoring. Today it is high-tech. ORT has had the amazing ability to adapt to the changing needs of the community.” Kaplan amplified: “What we do in one locale differs from another. The focus is for people to get gainful employment.” Kaplan spoke about ORT’s “huge effort in Israel to help develop its major resource — human capital…. What keeps Israel strong is high tech…. We go into the most underserved areas and provide the service for which the state does not have the funds. ORT America helps more than 300,000 students a year across the world.”

As I have mentioned in past ORT-related coverage, my mother and her sister Cyvia (who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942) graduated from an ORT school. I still remember Cyvia’s ORT “doctoral thesis” — a huge binder, and on each page a sampling of stitching, pleating, pattern making, shirring, embroidery, beading and other complicated hand- and machine-work techniques that she had mastered. During the war — whatever the city or country — it was my mother’s ORT training as a dressmaker, seamstress and couture replicator that enabled her to support us.


Uptown Girl: Honorary chair Christie Brinkley attended the Wild Wild West Carnival.
Karen Leon
Uptown Girl: Honorary chair Christie Brinkley attended the Wild Wild West Carnival.

Despite overcast skies, the August 9 Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Annual Family Day attracted more than 1,300 to the Bridgehampton, N.Y., division of Ross School for a Wild Wild West Carnival. Honorary chair Christie Brinkley was joined by fashion designer Elie Tahari and his family, and by jewelry designer Judith Ripka, Elizabeth and Jonathan Tisch, Stacey and Coby Bronfman and *Dr. Howard Sobel, who helped raise $350,000 to benefit Einstein’s Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center. An avid environmentalist and longtime Einstein supporter, Brinkley ventured that she “suspects” pollution as one of the causes of autism and other developmental problems. I first met Brinkley when she was honored by Einstein at the 2003 Spirit of Achievement Luncheon. At that event, Brinkley, referring to herself as the “uptown girl” — an allusion to the song of the same name by her ex Billy Joel — created a frisson of discomfiture by telling the guests that they were “enjoying their dessert in the cross-hair of three nuclear plants.” 

In her address and seventh year as honorary chair of this afternoon festival, Brinkley recalled: “I was introduced to Einstein through a luncheon I was attending in New York. They showed a film where they were highlighting all… that the Einstein College of Medicine has done. I couldn’t believe all the advances they were making with breast cancer and children with autism. I was astounded and wanted to get involved and help in any way I could.” The six chairwomen who helped make this year’s “Wild Wild West” event a hit are Jackie Harris Hochberg, Erica Karsch, Roxanne Palin, Cathy Schwartz, Mindy Feinberg and Tasha Genatt.

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