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JFK and the Rabbi

The Jewish story behind a towering statue of the president

by
Moshe Becker
February 12, 2021
Daveynin/Flickr
Mckeesport, PennsylvaniaDaveynin/Flickr

Unveiled on Feb. 9, 1965, the bronze sculpture of John F. Kennedy in Mckeesport, Pennsylvania, is considered the oldest full-body statue of the assassinated president. In many ways, the statue’s story is a deeply American one: In 1963, the year of JFK’s death, Mckeesport was not yet home to a single statue. Its mayor at the time, Andrew Jakomas, thought it fitting that the up-and-coming town’s first statue should celebrate the popular president. Indeed, work on commissioning the statue began almost immediately after JFK’s death.

And yet, the towering statue—9 feet tall atop an 8-foot granite base—also has a Jewish story to tell, or, perhaps, a uniquely Jewish-American story.

Kennedy, very much alive, had visited Mckeesport a few years before his bronze likeness was installed in what is today Kennedy Park. On Oct. 13, 1962, after stopping the previous day in nearby Pittsburgh, President Kennedy graced McKeesport with his presence and famous rhetoric, delivering an 11-minute speech to an exhilarated crowd. Campaigning on behalf of his party’s congressional candidates in the upcoming midterm elections, JFK exhorted this small, yet bustling and growing mill town to support the Democratic Party and its promise of job growth and social safety legislation. An estimated 25,000 people filled Lysle Boulevard and Walnut Street that day to see the president, hear his speech, and perhaps even shake his hand. (Situated next to City Hall, the parking lot that hosted the makeshift stage on that occasion later became an obvious location for the statue.)

Included in the large crowd that sunny morning were members of McKeesport’s Orthodox synagogue, Gemilas Chesed. Founded in 1886 by Hungarian immigrants, it was McKeesport’s oldest Jewish congregation. At first blush, this detail is hardly noteworthy; the leader of the free world would likely have been a compelling attraction for locals of any faith. However, a glance at that year’s Jewish calendar will immediately indicate that participation in this event indeed presented a significant scheduling conflict. Oct. 13, 1962, the day of JFK’s visit, was a Saturday, and the timing of his appearance—10:30 a.m.—could hardly have been less convenient for Shabbat morning worshippers. The day in question was also the first day of Sukkot. JFK would be ascending to the podium just as Gemilas Chesed’s pews were to be filling with members and visitors gathering for the holiday services. On a regular Shabbat, perhaps a slight adjustment to the day’s schedule could have resolved the conflict; the festive and lengthy Sukkot liturgy would scarcely have cooperated with such an attempt.

Gemilas Chesed’s spiritual leader at the time was Rabbi Yitzchak (Irving) Chinn. A thoroughly traditional Orthodox rabbi, one doubts he would have considered canceling services on any day in favor of a presidential address. Yet, Chinn was also deeply committed to his and his community’s civic role in Mckeesport. JFK’s visit was, after all, an auspicious moment for their town. So, rather than miss out on such a rare opportunity to see the president, Chinn resolved his scheduling dilemma in a decision still recalled by members years later as striking: Pausing the synagogue service after shacharit, a natural transition point in the liturgy, Chinn and his congregants walked together to the event, about 15 minutes away. Following the president’s speech, they returned to shul and continued the holiday prayers. Happily, religious obligation and civic purpose were both satisfied in this unconventional arrangement.

Thirteen months later, on Nov. 22, 1963, JFK was shot and killed in Dallas. The city of Mckeesport announced its plans for the statue within a few short days, as the nation was still mourning the beloved president.

To facilitate successful completion of the statue, and, in all likelihood, to help raise the necessary funds to do so, the city formed a committee of local leaders representing Mckeesport’s various communities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chinn was asked to sit on this committee and participate in its efforts.

Once again, Chinn paused, faced with another potential conflict between civic impulses and religious fidelity. Before agreeing to join the Mckeesport statue committee, he consulted with the leading American authority on Jewish law at that time, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of New York.

Why the hesitation? We learn of Chinn’s concerns from Feinstein’s response, which is dated Jan. 13, 1964 (Igrot Moshe, Vol. 5, Yoreh Deah 2:54). Normative Jewish law prohibits forming or even owning a sculpture with human likeness, for any reason. This proscription, recorded in the Talmud and codified in Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, is predicated on the biblical idea that man is created in the Divine image. To represent man in a material form is to flirt with a possible attempt at representing his Maker. Would Chinn’s involvement in the JFK statue committee run afoul of this prohibition?

In his reply, Feinstein duly considers the question, ultimately allowing and even supporting Chinn’s participation in the Mckeesport committee. Outlining his reasoning, Feinstein explained that Chinn would be neither a principal in the construction of the statue nor its eventual owner. Chinn’s work with the committee as a facilitator or even fundraiser would be sufficiently indirect, keeping him on the allowable side of the governing Halachic rule, which only prohibits a Jew’s direct creation or ownership of a human image.

Feinstein is sensitive to the idea that, strictly speaking, every resident of the city “owns” its public works and that Chinn (and presumably all Jews in Mckeesport) could claim potential ownership in the statue. But Feinstein dismisses this objection. For all the cost associated with commissioning a statue, its monetary value will ultimately be negligible. An individual citizen’s nominal share in such a statue is not recognized by Halacha as a true economic interest.

Thus, concluded Feinstein, it was appropriate for Chinn to accept the committee invitation. The underlying effort to honor JFK and the U.S. government is laudatory and consistent with Torah values, and no formal prohibition stands in the way of remembering the president in the manner presented by Chinn.

JFK’s memorial stands tall in Mckeesport. And Chinn’s story stands as a reminder that as Jewish Americans, we have been and remain invited to realize full participation in civic life and broader society, while being free to hold dear our highest values and religious commitments, and to do so proudly.

Moshe Becker is an operations executive in New York City, a rabbi, and a frequent lecturer and writer on Jewish law and history.

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