Jacob Rader Marcus – Hero of American Jewish History
This young man in uniform was Jacob Rader Marcus (1896-1995) of Connellsville, PA. He grew up quintessentially American, steeped in the lore of both our country and our faith. He loved the symbols of American freedom, from the flag to Uncle Sam and willingly went to serve in our armed forces during World War I.
After completing his service, he went into a life of faith and teaching. After receiving his s’micha (rabbinical ordination) he served in every capacity of instruction at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati, Ohio from 1920-1995. He began teaching Ethics of the Fathers, which we are reading now in the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. He ended up having created an entire academic field from nothing called American Jewish History. He made it into a discipline that is studied throughout America and beyond.
Because of tragedy in his family, he became devoted and attached to the rabbinical students he taught. He kept in touch with them after leaving the school and he was eventually named an honorary officer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Rabbi Symons’ and my professional organization) for life.
Students came to the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR just to study with him and to take part in his great, life’s work: The establishment of a home for documents that reflected every aspect of American Jewish life. He called this institution The American Jewish Archives, which to this day, is one of the great repositories of papers and documents in the entire Jewish world.
Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to study with him personally, as his class my year was oversubscribed. I studied instead with the scholar who became his heir, Dr. Jonathan Sarna, who holds the endowed chair in American Jewish History at Brandeis University. But I spoke with Dr. Marcus as often as I could and I felt his warmth, learning and passion in every encounter we shared.
Once, I was sitting in the library doing research of my own, when he walked by and, almost on a whim, had me stand to face him. He barked at me and poked his index finger into my chest and said, “Son (he called everyone “son” regardless of gender), when you give your sermon on Friday night, remember this rule: If you haven’t struck oil in 20 minutes, stop boring!”
Thousands of rabbis in our movement have similar stories that evoke loving memories of him. What I remember most, though, is what he shared of himself at the convention of Reform Rabbis in Cincinnati in 1989. It was his swan song, his valedictory talk. He spoke about dealing with hardship and difficulty and never losing faith in the promise of both America and Judaism. Then he said the following words, which burned their way into my soul:
“We must become proud exponents of the best in our Jewish heritage. That legacy reached its height in the ethical demands of the Hebrew prophets. They taught us to abhor hatred, violence, brutality, to avoid every aspect of any concept that manifests itself in contempt for fellow human beings. Let us be men and women of dignity, kindliness, learning, gentility, moral courage. Let us never forget that the weapons of the Jew are truth and the irrefutable logic of decency…
It may well be that we cannot love our neighbors as we love ourselves – that is a counsel of perfection, but the least we can do it to tolerate them and their differences. Never lower your ethical sights. If we are not a moral people, then we are like so many others, billions of pounds of organic matter, nothing else…
Our prophetic exhortations are the last and best hope of humanity. If we raise but a handful of disciples who treasure our ideals, we will survive. We are an Am Olam, an eternal people; the world can never, never destroy all of us!”
This old man. I loved him so. And I remember at this season as we march toward Mt. Sinai and receiving Torah all over again. As he taught in Pirkei Avot, Chapters of the Fathers, “Where there are no worthy persons, strive to be one.”
Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus – soldier, scholar, pioneer, mentor, friend. He was one of the worthiest I have ever been blessed to know.