FDR Kin in an Unlikely Spot: A Rabbi’s Pulpit

By Eric Herschthal

Published September 01, 2006, issue of September 01, 2006.
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It isn’t often that a community can say that its rabbi’s American past goes back further than the country’s first synagogue. Or that its rabbi had ancestors who landed in New Amsterdam in the 1640s. Or, for that matter, that its rabbi’s great-grandfather was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States.

But as of this summer, the membership at Congregation Beth El in Bennington, Vt., can.

The community recently hired Joshua Boettiger, a 32-year-old graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. His father is a grandson of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and his mother is Jewish.

Though Boettiger never knew his famous forbears, he nevertheless sees himself as a sort of steward of their legacy.

“I think I’ve been indirectly influenced by Franklin and Eleanor,” Boettiger told the Forward. “Especially Eleanor’s call to be useful,” he said, adding that it echoes the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or “healing the world.”

When he has been asked how he has reckoned with FDR’s legacy vis-à-vis Europe’s Jews, Boettiger has said that “it’s a complex issue.”

“On the one hand this was the president most beloved by the Jews ever — who did more for the poorer Jewish community than had anyone,” Boettiger said in an article that ran in The New York Times last year about FDR descendants. Boettiger did, however, concede that FDR “didn’t do as much as he could have saving the Jews from the Nazi machine.”

But mostly, he said, he leaves that debate to the historians. Instead, he tries to focus on his great-grandparents’ commitment to public service as a source of personal inspiration.

“My father was close with Eleanor, and that also accounts for why she loomed large for me,” he said. “Not to knock Franklin or anything.”

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