“Beyond Tolerance”: Searing Boyhood Encounter with Antisemitism Leads to Lifetime Devotion to Liberty
Read the recent profile on Ambassador Loeb and this project in the Wall Street Journal - Donor of the Day: John Loeb - Lessons of George Washington
John L. Loeb, Jr. has a story to tell. Actually, he has many stories to tell: scion of a storied family in American finance, tireless philanthropist and patron of culture, Ambassador to Denmark in the Reagan administration, advisor and trustee and board member to a host of institutions, honored recipient of countless service awards and recognitions.
One of Loeb’s great lifelong passions has been the preservation of early Jewish history in the United States. He’s a Son of the American Revolution whose ancestors came to New York City from Holland in 1697, and the descendant on both sides from great Wall Street financial leaders.
In support of this dedication to history, he’s contributed to the renovation of one of a notable historic landmark in American religious history, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest surviving Jewish house of worship in the States. He’s also the patron of a unique digital collection of early American Jewish portraits. These portraits are one of the key exhibits in the Loeb Visitors Center at the Touro Synagogue, which opened in August 2009.
But perhaps the greatest mission of Ambassador Loeb’s life derives from an even broader vision. He’s assigned himself a unique role as a quiet champion of religious liberty and freedom, an optimistic opponent of bigotry and prejudice, and a believer in the power of teaching and education to change minds and open hearts.
With that inspiration, he became the founder and chairman of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, whose mission is to promote awareness of the historic roots of religious liberty in America.
The touchstone document and historical moment that inspired the foundation is George Washington’s "Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island." At the beautiful Loeb Visitors Center in Newport, tucked between the Georgian Touro Synagogue and the brick and white Colony House, visitors explore a detailed historical exhibit on the context of the Washington Letters, the early Jewish community, and the heyday of the colonial seaport.
But Loeb’s most powerful insight is not only about preserving that storied past or promoting pride in a community heritage. His belief in the significance of the exchange between Washington and Newport’s Jewish community remains relevant for our country today, and to his own life.
Paradoxically, Loeb’s personal commitment to teaching about religious inclusiveness comes from a moment of pain and exclusion. In his words:
It takes place in the fall of 1945 towards the end of World War II. The story is about a boy who was sent to boarding school in 1939 when he was only nine. He is now fourteen. The boarding school is large and has an all American white-male student body whose families are well-to-do and well-educated. There are few minorities in this school — only five foreigners (refugees from Europe) and two American Jews, one of whom was this boy.
Saturday night is movie night, which the whole student body attends. The first newsreel pictures of the German concentration camps appear on the screen — horrible, disturbing images of the dead and the emaciated near-dead men, women, and children in their degrading striped uniforms. The pictures take that boy’s breath away. What happens next completely knocks the wind out of him. The entire student body cheers and hoots. And afterwards a group of the boys approach him and say, “Well, we don’t like Hitler, but at least he’s killed the Jews.
That boy was me.
I was stunned. I had always thought we were all Americans and religion didn’t matter as long as you were a good American. After all, my Grandmother Adeline Moses Loeb had American ancestors going all the way back to the Revolutionary War — and someone from our family had fought in all of them!
That terrible night when my school showed the Holocaust newsreel was the inspiration that fired my lifelong motive to find the basis for such hatred of the Jews, to find peace in my own heart, and to teach young people about living with others in more than toleration — I call it “beyond tolerance.”
For the young Loeb, the moment permanently shifted his personal lens. Despite being born into a place of significant privilege, and to a heritage of patriotism and achievement, he experienced in that moment a fundamental and painful challenge to identity. In that moment, he experienced how young fellow students saw Jews: as “others” who were unworthy of life or respect. They knew their classmate John to be a Jew, but yet they imagined “Jews” in the abstract as something so distasteful and objectionable that their very humanity went unrecognized.
Surprisingly, that talismanic moment did not change Loeb into someone who was cynical about his nation or his generation, despairing about human nature, or filled with anger at the prejudice and moral failings of others.
Instead, he grew up into a community leader with a deep and abiding wish to study and understand prejudice, and enlighten so as to diffuse it. By promoting the study of Jewish history, he believes that his fellow citizens can come to a different understanding of American history, an understanding that the nation has always been shared by communities of different culture and faith. In particular, by promoting the study of George Washington’s beliefs about religious liberties, he believes he can motivate Americans to re-examine the original stories of the founding of the United States.
The significance of religious freedom for current American and global society today are at the heart of this effort. We live in a moment when many are asking what it means to be both a member of a religious faith and a citizen of a Western democracy, and what citizenship means to ethnic and immigrant groups that may be new to this country or different from the majority in their religious beliefs.
Widespread abhorrence over crimes committed by some Muslim extremists lead to suspicions that the entire Islamic community of faith presents a threat to Western civilization. Some long-resident social groups in America argue that their faiths alone inherit a special founding status in the nation. Still other voices claim that the newest immigrant groups possess cultural differences that can never be successfully accommodated in a modern democracy. Each of these deep veins of cultural distrust run headlong against the idealistic vision pictured by the Newport warden Seixas and the country’s first President, who saw the new United States
“generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”
Through the Loeb Visitors Center at the Touro Synagogue, through the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, and through his sponsorship of this project in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves and New York University, Loeb continues to help spread that generous and optimistic vision of America to new generations.
Mr. Loeb is currently chairman of John L. Loeb, Jr. Associates, Inc., Investment Counselors. He serves as chairman of the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States and the John L. Loeb, Jr. Foundation. He is the founder and chairman of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, which recently completed the building and opening of the Loeb Visitors Center on the campus of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Ambassador Loeb is a vice chairman of the Council of American Ambassadors. A former ambassador to Denmark, he is a trustee of the American-Scandinavian Foundation.
He was a trustee of the Educational Testing Service (SAT) from 1986–1993 and a trustee of the American University from 1985–1994. He has served on seven Harvard visiting committees including the Board of Overseers Visiting Committee of Harvard College to the John F. Kennedy School of Government (1980–1986), and the Board of Overseers Visiting Committee of Harvard College to the Harvard Business School (1968–1979).
Ambassador Loeb earned his B.A. cum laude in 1952 from Harvard College where he was an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. In 1954, he received his M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School. He was a senior partner in Loeb, Rhoades & Co. from 1956–1976, and chairman of the Board of Holly Sugar from 1969–1971. He has served as a director of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Rio Grande Industries and John Morrell & Co., among other corporations. He currently owns the Russian Riverbend Vineyards Ltd., which produces Sonoma-Loeb wines.
He was the U.S. ambassador to Denmark from 1981–1983 and a delegate to the 38th Session of the UN General Assembly. An advisor to Governor Nelson Rockefeller on Environmental and Economic Affairs from 1967-1970, he served as chairman of the Governor’s New York State Council of Environmental Advisors from 1970–1975. From 1954–1956, he served as 1st Lt. in the United States Air Force and was stationed at the Air Force’s Plant Representative Office in the Douglas Aircraft Co., Long Beach, California.
Among his numerous awards and recognitions are the Justice Louis D. Brandeis Award and the Distinguished Patriot Award of the Sons of the American Revolution. The John Clarke Society named him the John Clarke Laureate. He received the designation of C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994 for his work with the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States. Ambassador Loeb is also a Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of Dannebrog, received from Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. He holds an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Georgetown University. He is a member of the Society of Colonial Wars and the Sons of the American Revolution.
The most recent in a series of books about the Loeb and Lehman families, An American Experience: Adeline Moses Loeb and Her Early American Jewish Ancestors, was launched in May 2009 to great acclaim. It is a book about Ambassador Loeb’s grandmother and traces his ancestors back three centuries in America including the Touros of Newport, Rhode Island.
Visit the Touro Synagogue and Loeb Visitors' Center in Newport, Rhode Island
Shelly Banjo, "Donor of the Day: John Loeb - Lessons of George Washington," The Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2010.
About This Project
Welcome to Give Bigotry No Sanction: The George Washington Letter Project: Exploring Religious Freedom and Democracy