Lyndon Johnson Was Scheduled To Visit My Austin Shul the Day After Kennedy Died
But in December 1963, the new president made up the date, honoring a long Jewish friendship
Early one morning after the sh’loshim for Kennedy were over, Novy received a call from President Johnson. “He told Daddy, ‘I said I would be there, and I’m going to be there,’” Elaine Shapiro said. With only a week’s notice, the members of Congregation Agudas Achim hustled once again to prepare. The shul’s decorations committee set the stage for the possibility that there might be television cameras in attendance. The Sisterhood catering team thawed out the barbecue and remade the potato salad and Jell-O mold. Shirley Rubinett remembered that the Secret Service sent taste-testers, and the president was supposed to eat only what they approved. But, in the end, she told me, “He ate whatever he wanted, he gobbled it down, he was hungry.”
Almost every person I spoke with said the most memorable image of the evening was entering the synagogue vestibule and seeing a red telephone on the table—a cultural icon preserved in the congregants’ collective memory as the infamous “red phone” connecting Washington and Moscow, though it could not have been. Ann and Saul Ginsburg’s son, David, played “Hail to the Chief” on the Spinet piano. The suave and articulate Dr. Polsky emceed the evening, and Jim Novy introduced the president with a litany of stories of all the times Johnson had helped him and the Jews. “I’ve always called on President Johnson to give us a help,” Novy told the crowd. “And there was never a time that I asked the president that he wouldn’t take care of Jewish problems.” In fact, Novy’s introduction that night is what gave rise to the persistent Internet rumors that Johnson was a righteous gentile who saved hundreds of Jewish lives before and during WWII, though exhaustive searches by Johnson Library archivist Claudia Anderson have turned up no primary-source proof to substantiate the rumors.
After the community poured out its affection, President Johnson rose to speak. In his remarks—captured on a 33 1/3 LP for congregants to keep as a souvenir—he revealed the reciprocity of the trust and respect he felt, as well as the strength he drew from them. He combined a tribute to his home community and the Jewish people with remarks that foreshadowed his War on Poverty, which we Texans chose to hold in our memories in a more elevated place than the missteps in Vietnam that ultimately doomed his leadership. And he offered his personal tribute to Jim Novy: “If we have leaders like this good man who has spent so many of his hours in the years past trying to build temples like this, temples where men can worship, temples where justice reigns, temples where the free are welcome, temples where the dignity of man prevails, then America will truly be worthy of the leadership we claim, and the rest of the world will follow us where we lead.”
When Novy died, in 1971, Johnson—by then out of the White House and back in Texas—sat alone in the back of the sanctuary, without Secret Service or aides or hangers-on, wearing a kippah. Shortly after, Johnson also died of heart disease. It would seem that the partnership forged by the two men and the benefits yielded to Congregation Agudas Achim had come to an end. But there is a postscript to this story: During the later years of the Johnson presidency, Encyclopedia Judaica approached Jim Novy to see if he could persuade the president to help fund them. Through Novy’s influence, they were able to obtain an interest-free $2 million loan to conduct the research needed to replace the old Jewish Encyclopedia with a version that reflected both the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. In return for the favor, Novy asked for 100 sets of encyclopedias to sell as a fundraiser. The proceeds arrived after the deaths of both Johnson and Novy, but Dr. Byron Smith, another former shul president, hoarded the money and hid it from anyone who wanted to use it to pay for day-to-day operations to pay down the Bull Creek mortgage, years in advance.
We Texas Jews just loved LBJ. It wasn’t just that he helped Austin Jews build a shul or that so many of us benefited from the “kosher pork” Johnson brought home. (My father was a chemical engineer who worked to make solid rocket fuel to be sold to NASA.) I remember how, on the day Johnson was inaugurated in 1965, my father proudly pointed to Rabbi Hyman Judah Schachtel of Houston standing right there next to the president of the United States. To have my grandparents’ rabbi make the invocation gave a 10-year-old Jewish girl from Waco a sense of belonging. A few years later, in 1971—the year Jim Novy died—I attended a youth gathering at the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., and for the first time heard my peers characterizing LBJ as a warmongering ignoramus with a drawl. To this day I hear the echo of my kishkes: Didn’t they know? Didn’t they know that LBJ was one of us?
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that President Johnson was not, in fact, the first sitting American president to dedicate a synagogue. That honor belongs to President Ulysses S. Grant, who attended the dedication of Washington’s Adas Israel in 1876.
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