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John Fitzgerald Kennedy: A Brief Shining Moment

Was it the charisma?  Was it the youth, the vigor, the good looks, charm and wit?  Or was it the eloquence of his rhetoric, the elegant grace and style he encapsulated?  Was it the tragedy of the life of a father of two young children cut short?  Was it the sheer intellect and hope that he inspired in others?  Or was it the promise and speculation about what could have been?  It was all of these, and more.    I am referring of course to our fixation with the life and death 50 years ago of the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
An entire generation was inspired by his call to serve our country and to work for the good of all.  He taught us to view public service as a noble calling.  I still recall the sense of optimism and the hope that he instilled in us when he spoke.  And I recall the agonizing sense of despair that followed his death, the anguished feeling that we were unfairly robbed, that something so precious, with so much potential had been taken from us too soon.
For Jews, the first reaction, among almost every Jew I know was:  I sure hope that whoever killed him wasn’t Jewish.  And we came to synagogues the Friday night he was shot to mourn.  My father took me with him to services that shabbat.  My synagogue, like others across the country was packed.  The prevailing sadness and sorrow culminated in our rising as a congregation to say kaddish at the end of services for our fallen president.
We Jews felt a special connection to him.  When he spoke about improving the world, it resonated with us because it sounded like the concept we know as tikun olam.  If a Catholic could break the mold and be elected President, there was hope that perhaps one day a Jew could run for and be elected President as well.
Before Kennedy was president, Israel’s primary ally and supplier of military weapons and hardware was France.  His predecessor, Eisenhower was not very friendly to the Jewish state, but under Kennedy the relationship began to change.
I don’t know if he was quoting Catholic doctrine when he said the stirring words in his inaugural address, but he sure was expressing some important Jewish beliefs.  He spoke of the torch being passed to the next generation, and that the light from our endeavors can illuminate the world.  We Jews refer to the Torah as light.  The prophet Isaiah said we should strive to be an or lagoyim, a light unto the nations, by how we act.  We pray in our morning prayers for anOr Hadash, a new light to shine on us and all the world, and every synagogue has a Ner Tamid, an eternal flame.
When he concluded his speech by saying that “God’s work on earth must truly be our own” he was echoing the Jewish concept that we are shitufei Elohim, God’s partners.  These notions coupled with the imagery and language he used may well have made their way into the speech as a result of the touch and influence of his collaborator, Ted Sorenson, who helped write the speech, and whose mother was Jewish.
So much has been said and written, and there have been so many TV specials, books and shows documenting his life, the era, and our reaction to the assassination.  It is difficult to say something new, something that has not yet been said about the impact of the national loss that to this day is felt so personally by so many.
He really did have a personal impact on my generation.  We felt we could change the world, and perhaps more importantly, that we had an obligation to do so. To some degree, the lofty rhetoric of his speeches has something to do with why I stand before you today as your rabbi.  I was one of those inspired by his call to serve others.  Initially interested in politics when I was younger, I realized that working to perpetuate the ideals of our heritage as a rabbi would give me the chance to, in some small way do my part to fulfill his calling to dedicate our lives to make the world a better place.
I imagine those under the age of 55 may not be able to understand what this public wrenching of the past week and the seeming obsession with all things Kennedy is all about.
Many of the clichés and oft repeated comments are true.  It really was a turning point in our nation’s history, ushering in the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King and his brother Bobby.  The tumultuous 60’s and confrontation between the generations, the loss of innocence and feeling of vulnerability if a young President, head of the most powerful nation in the world could be shot and killed, we all felt a little less safe.  We all really did feel just a bit prouder of our nation and of its standing in the world when he was President.
When considering how trapped we may appear to be in memory and absorbed in that moment, the “what if” factor cannot be discounted – what if he would have lived, how different we imagine our world would be.
We read in this week’s Torah portion, VaYeshev that Jacob is shown by his sons the bloody garment worn by his son Joseph, reminiscent of the blood stained outfit worn by Mrs. Kennedy that fateful day in Dallas.  Looking at the coat Jacob concluded that his beloved son Joseph had been killed by wild beasts.  The Torah tells us that Jacob refused to be consoled.  He tells his children that he would forever mourn and that he would go down to his grave mourning his loss.
In many respects, we are like Jacob.  Although it has been 50 years, we feel the loss, as if it were yesterday, and are not consoled.
I still shed a tear every time I hear the music of one of my favorite musicals, Camelot, associated with his Presidency, especially the words in the scene at the end of the play when King Arthur tells a young lad to go forth and tell others so the world will know about once was, but is no more.  He says:
“Tell it strong and clear…
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot.
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.”
May we never forget, and hopefully one day we may recapture that brief shining moment and work to make it real again.  May that spirit last longer than a thousand days.  May it be eternal.

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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.