Where are the great American Jewish leaders?

We are living in a troubling and dangerous time, a time when we need courageous and insightful leaders more than at any point since the Holocaust. We are facing a potentially existential crisis for Israel and ultimately, I believe, for Jewish people worldwide. Yet our leaders for the most part have not responded in a forceful way.

Those among us who understand what is at stake must immediately light a fire under our current leaders. At the same time, we need to rethink the process of how we select our leaders and what we expect of them.

If we look squarely at the facts and are unflinchingly honest with ourselves, we will admit that we are confronted with substantial threats. Today we are experiencing two primary attacks. The Arab/Muslim/Persian drive to remove Israel as a Jewish state is a fact, as is the very real threat of catastrophe that a nuclear Iran poses to Israel.

The unsettling recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and the entire Arab world add to the instability of Israel’s neighbors. Increasingly, radical Islamists, who interpret certain edicts of the Koran as instructing them to kill Jews, are directing their vitriol and hateful propaganda not solely at Israel but at the Jewish people as well. Anti-Israel sentiment is simply a new twist on an old canard. The hate has migrated from Christian religious anti-Semitism to Nazi racial anti-Semitism to Muslim political anti-Semitism and, finally, to a leftist, intellectual form of anti-Semitism under the guise of political correctness.

There is a frightening groundswell of negativity in the Western and Muslim worlds toward Israel and the Jews resulting from a deliberate, pernicious and astonishingly effective international propaganda campaign to delegitimize Israel by portraying it as a colonial implant and oppressive occupier. We have a situation in which Jews everywhere are experiencing a level of insecurity that has not existed since the 1940s.

Many would agree that Jewish leadership has a poor record when it comes to the perennial American Jewish problems of Jewish education, assimilation and confronting modernity. Most everyone also would agree that American Jewish leadership during the Holocaust was abysmal.

Why, then, have we ignored the lessons of that era? We certainly have the wherewithal—we have shown ourselves to be effective change agents and effective leaders in so many spheres outside of the Jewish world, from the media to medicine to the sciences to the arts and humanities. Where is our “Jewish genius”?

To all who would argue that we already have been responding, I submit that we have not. Mass assemblies within our communities with the stars of the Israeli lecture circuit and American political leaders might make American Jews feel good, but won’t make a difference—preaching to the converted never does.

American Jewish leadership does a reasonably good job running nursing homes, feeding the poor and housing the homeless. It is essentially a model forged in the prewar Ashkenazic communities of Europe and in the Sephardic world of the Levant, when the Jewish people were in effect powerless.

But when it comes to issues of exercising serious power to prevent another catastrophe in which the unthinkable can happen in an instant, our leaders have been impotent. They have adhered to an outdated model based on powerlessness despite the fact that, since the founding of the State of Israel, we now have power and a voice that potentially can be heard the world over.

I am not denying that we have an effective group in AIPAC, which does a phenomenal job of lobbying Congress. Paradoxically, however, no Jewish organization has succeeded when it comes to lobbying the Jewish people—and no organization has been successful in motivating the masses of Jews to action.

Where are our great, inspiring leaders who will be able to rally us, help us coalesce to work together for the good of the Jewish people and the world? Where is our Brandeis, our Martin Luther King Jr.? Where is our American Ben-Gurion or Jabotinsky?

Threats and insufficient response

We are running out of time. While the Arab leadership funded a well-thought-out campaign to sway the hearts and minds of the masses in Europe and the left in the United States; while they endowed chairs on college campuses and subsequently embedded like-minded professors sympathetic to their cause; we were marching at Israel Day parades singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”

While we were feeling warm and fuzzy, while we were asleep at the wheel, our enemies laid out and put into action a detailed and effective plan to destroy the State of Israel and the Jewish people. What they could not accomplish on the battlefield, they determined to carry out in the public arena.

We are now playing catch up—we finally realized what was going on and have been making a belated attempt to fight delegitimization and promote Israel studies on the campuses, but our efforts are nowhere near the scope that is necessary to effectively counter the momentum in place from our enemies’ efforts.  It is a case of too little, too late.

What are our leaders doing about these threats to the safety of Israel and the Jews? How loudly did our leaders protest when the world sided with the Turkish flotilla? How much is really being done about the Iran issue? Were our leaders vocal enough in response to the Goldstone report? And it staggers the mind how our leadership is not clamping down on some Jewish federations as they continue to fund organizations that espouse anti-Israel activities.

Considering our recent history, it seems inconceivable that our leaders are not more vociferous in their calls for justice and protection, are not organizing marches on Washington and putting unrelenting pressure on the president, are not coordinating a voice of truth to counter the growing threats. Quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy did not work during the Holocaust, and it won’t work now. The isolated voices of organizations like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America and others are not enough. The groups that are pushing for sanctions are not doing enough.

We need our leaders to be louder and more forceful, and for their actions to have real results. They need to motivate not only Congress and the administration to take action, but also Jews as a whole from apathy into action. We need more in-your-face Jewish activism. And we also need to form real partnerships with those that wish us well, i.e., the Evangelicals.

Would today’s Jewish leadership have the wherewithal to call for Jewish civil disobedience if a nightmare scenario develops, as yesterday’s leaders should have but did not during the Shoah?

Of course, there are some very dedicated and inspired leaders among us. There are those who are speaking out, those who are trying to apply the lessons of the Soviet Jewry model, which was one of American Jewry’s successes (albeit only after impetus from the masses). But there are too few of them.

To understand, it helps to look back. The failure of American Jewish leadership during World War II was no doubt in part motivated by fear, by the conviction that not rocking the boat was the best course, by the desire to hold onto the relatively newfound security of living in America, a safe haven and an ocean away from the turmoil of Europe. During the Holocaust, there were grass-roots groups doing valiant work on behalf of Europe’s Jews that were essentially silenced by America’s mainstream Jewish leadership.

This is the legacy we have inherited. Our leaders today have additional reasons for choosing to keep silent. Raising the alarm about the threats to Israel runs the risk of being labeled a racist or Islamophobe. And certainly there are many leaders who simply don’t know what to do. As a consequence they are doing next to nothing.

We know from modern Jewish history that people, organizations and leadership can change. In the 1940s, despite the horrific news coming from Europe, a number of individuals, organizations and rabbis were and remained opposed to the establishment of the refuge of the State of Israel. Some Jews opposed the United States entering and prosecuting the war. In hindsight, their opposition was ghastly.

Yet when prompted by their constituents, organizations do change, as do their leaders. Although the American Jewish Committee was not enthusiastic about Zionism before the State of Israel was declared, today it is one of the leading advocates for Israel and the Jewish people.

Choosing our leaders

Finally, we must reconsider how we choose our leaders. Our decision-makers today, the ones on the boards guiding collective Jewish action, are predominantly consensus builders drawn from the moneyed class, many of whom are unschooled in Jewish history and ritual, often unappreciative of the mystique and grandeur of our heritage, and lacking a solid grasp of what is most beneficial for the Jewish people and for Israel. When they do act, they often make ill-considered decisions that lead to poor outcomes.

To continue to choose our leaders from the same subset year after year and expect different results is not rational.

We should choose our leaders with different criteria in mind. Leaders should be people who are independent, creative thinkers and committed doers. They should be people of conviction and vision with the moral courage to rock the boat. We need leadership that is more diverse in terms of age and range of experience.

Our leaders should include members of the clergy, the academy and the creative community—people who understand the lessons of history and believe that history has a purpose. They are the ones who can inject into our community the missing vitality, imagination and vision.

We are in dire need of leaders who are connected to core Jewish values and who are caring, have empathy, wisdom and a majestic vision to be part of the power structure. Their collective experience, combined with the acumen of some of the current leaders, should improve the process of decision-making and lead to better outcomes.

If we choose our leaders with these criteria in mind, we will increase the probability that charismatic and forceful leaders will arise.

We cannot afford to remain silent. It is up to us to speak up, motivate our current leaders and ultimately strengthen our leadership. That is our homework. Let us hope that there is still time.

(Aryeh Rubin, a JTA board member, is the managing partner of the Maot Group and the founder and director of Targum Shlishi.


Kerry’s Heritage

Seven years ago, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discovered that more than a dozen of her relatives had perished in the Nazi concentration camps because they, like Albright, were born Jewish.

Albright’s discovery raised an even larger question: How many other American leaders have actually been of Jewish descent, but because of records and memories eroded by time, they never knew it?

In the case of Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry — thought by many to be a Boston Brahmin — the answer to the question is a convoluted one. It follows a path from a small Czech village near the Polish border to a long-forgotten suicide in a posh Boston hotel. It is the story of a young man who abandoned his Jewish faith, his nation and his name to pursue the American dream.

The Village

In 1873, in the Czech hamlet Bennisch, there were not enough Jews to form a synagogue. But anti-Semitism and pogroms were still a fact of life, and it was into this world on May 10 that year that Fritz Kohn was born.

The son of Benedikt and Mathilde Kohn, he became a simple brewer. He married a Jew named Ida Lowe but grew dissatisfied with his place in Moravian society.

Most of the population were Catholic and spoke German. Jews often found themselves the victims of discrimination, and many posed as non-Jews under pressure to assimilate.

“It was easier to do business as a Christian,” said Prague genealogist Julius Miller. “But many Jews just stopped being Jewish during this period and had no belief at all.”

On March 17, 1902, Kohn took his wife and infant son, Erich, to a government office in Vienna, changed his family name to Kerry and renamed himself Frederick. On May 4, 1905, the family traveled to Genoa, Italy, and boarded a ship bound for the United States.

The steamer was configured to carry nearly 2,000 passengers in steerage. However, the Kerrys did not make the typical immigrant crossing. Instead, they traveled in first class, with only 29 other passengers who had names like Hale, Walker and Bridgeman.

The ship’s records suggest that Kohn was already actively obscuring his roots. Ellis Island records note that he identified his family as Austrian Germans, rather than as Jews from Bennisch. By the time he arrived in New York on May 18, 1905, he had left his Jewish heritage behind.

A New Life

By January 1906, the Kerrys had settled in Chicago. Once there, Kohn — now Kerry — quickly set out to live the American dream.

On June 21, 1907, he filed his initial citizenship papers. By 1908, he appeared in a business directory with an office in Chicago’s Loop and, in 1910, he made it into the Blue Book, a catalogue of notable Chicago residents.

He filed his naturalization petition on Feb. 6, 1911, listing an address in the tony Uptown district. Signing as a witness was famous State Street merchant Henry Lytton.

Kohn’s second petition witness, Frank Case, worked as a manager at Sears & Roebuck, and was also regarded as a well-known member of society. Kohn had been involved in the reorganization of Sears and, by 1912, ran an ad in a directory as a “business counselor” under the name, Frederick A. Kerry & Staff.

However for unknown reasons, Kohn left Chicago, settling in the prominent Boston suburb of Brookline where, in 1915, his wife gave birth to Richard, father of Sen. Kerry. He continued life as a merchant in the shoe business, seeing enough success to hire a live-in German servant girl, who appears in his household’s 1920 U.S. Census record.

The census offers a glimpse into lengths to which Kohn had hidden his lineage. Both he and his wife listed their native tongues as German — when, as Czech Jews, their first language would have been Yiddish. At this point, both had been devout Catholics for nearly 20 years — a fact that adds greater mystery to the events that were about to unfold.

On Nov. 15, 1921, at the age of 48, Kohn wrote his last will and testament. Six days later, he walked into the lobby washroom of the posh Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, put a revolver to his head and pulled the trigger.

Probate records show he was virtually bankrupt. Other reports suggested that Kohn may have been in failing health — he suffered from severe asthma — and that he may have recently received an inheritance, which he transferred to his wife before his suicide.

The gunshot that took Kohn’s life also silenced a family history for more than 50 years. It would take the notoriety of a U.S. senator running for president to bring the story back to life.

A Rising Star

Unlike Kohn, a peasant who climbed the social ladder into America’s privileged class, John Kerry was to the manner born. His father served as an Army pilot during World War II, before becoming a noted U.S. diplomat. His mother descended from two dyed-in-the-wool Massachusetts blue-blood families: the Forbes and Winthrop clans.

Kerry’s early years were the transient life of a diplomat’s son at exclusive boarding schools in Europe and New Hampshire. He attended Yale at about the same time as President Bush, but while Bush lived the fraternity life, Kerry became president of the school’s political group.

Upon graduation in 1966, Kerry followed his father’s military footsteps, volunteering for Vietnam. He was mustered out in 1969, after receiving the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. However, he soon became a vocal antiwar protester, using his military experience to criticize the war, including testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971.

After graduating from law school in 1976, Kerry launched his political career, becoming Massachusetts lieutenant governor in 1982 under Michael Dukakis. He eventually ran for Senate in 1984, winning the seat vacated by Paul Tsongas.

The mystery of his family history continued. He learned from a relative that his grandmother had been born Jewish, but he knew virtually nothing about his grandfather. He eventually became so fixed on the subject that once, on a visit to Europe, he stopped in Vienna and called every Kerry in the phone book.

His office even contacted the regional Czech archives that, unknown to him, actually contained the original record of Kohn’s birth, but the senator never heard back. The bureau had stopped conducting searches for foreigners two years earlier.

The Mystery Revealed

In late 2002, rumors began to circulate that Kerry would seek the Democratic nomination for president. The Boston Globe’s editors solicited reporters for articles on Kerry’s life, and journalist Michael Kranish volunteered.

Kranish’s experience gave him a significant edge: He had recently spent four years piecing together his own family history. He knew that he’d need an overseas collaborator to check European records, so he hired prominent genealogist Felix Gundacker, an Austrian from the Institute for Historical Family Research.

Gundacker had developed a specialty in tracking the bloodlines of Jews in parts of what is now the Czech Republic. Eventually, he uncovered the document that detailed Frederick Kerry’s name change — the clue that would enable him to search for Fritz Kohn, the man’s birth name and the key to his past.

Had Kohn’s name been changed at Ellis Island, like so many other immigrants, it might have been lost in the fog of time. Because Kohn had changed his name before he immigrated — perhaps, ironically, to conceal his background — his origins could now be traced.

Gundacker only needed to find Kohn’s birth records. That took him to the Czech city of Opava, where vast regional records remained stored. One recordkeeper there, Jiri Stibor, opened letters each day from people around the globe seeking genealogical aid.

On June 20, 2002, Stibor received a letter in English from a man he only remembers as “Samuel C.” It carried the seal of a high-ranking Washington, D.C., official.

The letter related that Kerry was running for president and asked about a “Fritz Cohn.” However, the archives had stopped processing foreign requests, and the misspelling would have sidelined the search.

Stibor never forgot about the letter, the first he’d received from a prominent U.S. government official. So when Gundacker eventually visited his office, Stibor immediately remembered the request.

Both men began scouring the archive’s records, playing on Gundacker’s hunch that Kohn had been born Jewish. That meant extra time pursuing an additional, essential step.

“The Catholics at the time weren’t interested in keeping good records [of the Jews],” Stibor said. “I took note to find any entry in the books, and I couldn’t find him in the Catholic section. But if there were Jews in the town, they would be the last entries, at the end of the book.”

And that’s where it was — revealing a secret that Kohn had sought to hide a century earlier: the senator’s grandfather had been born a Czech Jew, in what is now the town of Horni Benesov. Gundacker phoned The Globe and told them he was “1,000 percent sure of it.”

No Trace of a Past

Kranish gathered the evidence and presented it to Kerry a short time later. Kerry could not contain his surprise.

“This was an incredible illumination,” Kerry explained. “It really connected the things I’d talked about for years but now understand even more personally.”

“I never really knew why my grandfather left Austria or why he underwent such personal transformation, but we do know many of the things that were happening under the old Hapsburg Empire,” the senator said. “We know what life was like for too many of them, and the ultimate turn for even greater tragedy it would take not much later.”

The Czech town’s current mayor said he has considered extending an invitation to Kerry to visit, although he added that there isn’t much to see. A box-shaped apartment building sits on the lot where Kohn’s house once stood. A small Jewish cemetery, where Benedikt and Mathilde Kohn were possibly buried, has vanished over time and the Kohn brewery is now the location of a discount sauna.

Such absence of history is typical of the Jewish immigrant experience, genealogist Miller said.

“People who left for America left all of their history,” he explained. “Grandparents and great-grandparents sometimes didn’t tell anything to anyone. In the 18th and 19th century, they wanted to leave their past behind.”