Remembering President Kennedy
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who was shot and killed while driving through Dallas, Texas in a convertible. President Kennedy was the youngest man elected president, and also the youngest president to die. He is remembered by the American public for many things: being a young, charismatic leader who sought to engage young people, as the first Catholic president, for his marriage to Jackie Kennedy, and his involvement and leadership in the Cold War. As we look back on this loss, we should also remember him for his relationship with the Jewish community in America.
On November 13, 1961, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) from 1943-1973 and a champion for social justice, joined a delegation of 250 Reform rabbis to present President Kennedy with a Torah in the White House Rose Garden. In 1961, the same year that President Kennedy established the Peace Corps, Rabbi Eisendrath was instrumental in establishing the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. When presenting the Torah to President Kennedy, Rabbi Eisendrath said, “This parchment contains not only sacred words but words for which men had sacrificed their lives.”
President Kennedy gave brief remarks after Rabbi Eisendrath presented him with the scroll and welcomed the delegation to the White House with words about the gift he had just received. President Kennedy recognized the significance of receiving a Torah that originated in Europe and of the relationship between himself and the American Jewish community. He remarked, “I am grateful to you and I want you to know that, in coming here today, I think it symbolizes the happy relations which exist between our religious groups and must continue to exist in this country if we are to be worthy of our heritage.” President Kennedy’s desire to promote harmony between different religious groups within America is a legacy that we as Jews feel intimately connected to and continue to strive towards.
In his inaugural address in 1961, President Kennedy said, “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” This line echoes a teaching from Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot : “You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.” As we mark 50 years since President Kennedy’s assassination, may we remember and honor a man who worked to make the world a better place and may we be inspired by his words and the words of our tradition to continue his work.
Image courtesy of the Union for Reform Judaism