Tree of Life Award from the Jewish National Fund, Sept. 17, 2009Thank you so much for this honor. Thank you in the first place to the Jewish National Fund and to the selection committee. Thank you to the co-chairs, the vice-chairs, and the committee members. And thank you to all of you for attending. I am thrilled to have a small part in the miraculous reforestation of Israel.
I accept this recognition this evening on behalf of all the Jews who have been students, faculty, staff, Board members, and supporters of Duquesne University over our 130 years together in Pittsburgh. Jews have long been accepted freely at Duquesne even when barriers and quotas were imposed on them elsewhere. In the 1950’s Jewish attorney Louis Little left the university a bequest of $25,000, which University President Fr. McAnulty used to buy State of Israel Bonds. At that time 8% of our faculty was Jewish. In that era, our library holdings were enriched considerably by a $20,000 gift from the Jewish community of the Rabbi Herman Hailperin collection, a rare set of 2600 items of biblical interpretation including 2 books from the 1550s. Our library itself would not be the improved resource it is today without the support of Stanley and Marcia Gumberg, for whom our library is now named. Our students will benefit in perpetuity from the endowed scholarship fund established by Eddie and Selma Goldberg. And University leadership from our Board of Directors has been shaped by board members Sam Kamin and Robert Gussin, in their meetings in our Samuel Weiss conference room.
The story of Samuel Weiss is quintessentially Duquesne. In the 1920s, University President Fr. Martin Hehir came across young Sam Weiss on campus. Weiss was a Jewish Duquesne student and he was looking deeply dejected. Fr. Hehir asked Weiss what his problem was. Weiss said he had to leave Duquesne because he could no longer afford to pay the tuition. Fr. Hehir told Weiss to go back to class because he, Fr. Hehir, would take care of the tuition. Weiss went back to class and Fr. Hehir took care of his bills. Years later, that student became Judge Samuel Weiss. Late in his successful career, Weiss revealed that he had been repaying the kindness of Fr. Hehir over and over again. Judge Samuel Weiss had been paying to the University each year’s annual tuition at Duquesne for every year of his entire professional career.
A story of this sort gives life to Pope John Paul II’s moving phrase that Jews and Catholics are “a blessing to one another.” Tragically, this has not always been so in our past. But I think we can take heart from the progress we are making to better embody that truth. One small recent example: The Vatican has just approved a change in the US Catholic catechism concerning Catholic understanding of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. Here is the old language: “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.” Here is the newly approved language: “To the Jewish people whom God first chose to hear his word, belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” I hope you agree that this is progress toward truly being blessings to one another.”
Let me end with another story from Duquesne’s past which shows that interfaith cooperation and respect has long been part of the makeup and self-identity of Duquesne University. It is recorded in Joseph Rishel’s history of the University. The story he tells is set in 1934, long before tolerance was the norm, long before “diversity” was accepted as a good thing. In fact, the thirties were a time in America when religious prejudices were not only strong but they were institutionalized and unashamedly frank.
1934 was a good year for Dukes basketball. We were enjoying a 23 game winning streak when our coach Chick Davies brought our team to play the then powerful basketball team of Westminster, a Presbyterian college. It was a strong rivalry in those days; in fact the last loss for the Dukes prior to the 23 game winning streak was against Westminster. And this game was on Westminster’s home court.
The first half went badly for the Dukes. Not only were we losing at halftime but we had endured an unusually hostile home crowd, with all sorts of shouted and chanted insults about Catholics and the Pope. In the locker room at the half, Coach Davies was furious. He kept slamming a basketball against the wall and shouting, “They hate us out there. They really hate us.”
Now Chick Davies was a Protestant. The two stars of the Dukes’s team were Paul Birch and Dudley Moore, both Protestants as well. The other three players in the starting Duquesne line up were Marty Reiter, Irv Brynner and Art Feldman; all three were Jewish. So our Duquesne team had 2 Protestants and 3 Jewish students with a Protestant coach.
After sitting in dejected silence watching their Coach slam the basketball, Birch spoke up for the team. “But Coach,” he asked, “why do they hate us?” To which Chick Davies replied with energy but with no apparent sense of irony: “They hate us because we’re Catholic!”
Once again, thank you for this honor. I treasure it.