A Message from Dr. Starr
I the LORD have called unto you in righteousness, and have taken hold of your hand, and submitted you as the people’s covenant, as a light unto the nations.
— Isaiah 42:6
By Deborah R. Starr, Ed.D., Head of School
We always refer to Chanukah as the “festival of lights.” Many of us set a table filled with various chanukiahs, oftentimes, one per family member. I have seen beautiful ones of silver, Lucite, metal and even wood. They have traditional branches, or cars, miniature synagogues, shoes and action heroes. Candles may be colorful, hand-dipped, pure white or made in Safat, Israel. Sometimes, they even have oil. The beauty is in darkening the room and then filling it with candle light.
We also, traditionally, put a chanukiah in the window, for others to see. It serves as a beacon to all who pass by that darkness can be dispelled with wisdom, obscurity can be illuminated with truth. When we get a new or bold idea, do we not say: I have seen the light?
During Christmas, in New England, Christians put an electric single white candle in the center of each window of their house. Not to be outdone, I used to put an electric chanukiah in each window of our house.
With Chanukah approaching, I kept thinking about light and its greater place in this world and as Jews our connection to it. In my pondering, I returned to the above quote from Isaiah, about Jews being a “light unto the nations.” What does that mean?
Certainly in a religious sense, our light has spread to the nations of the earth. Our father, Abraham, is ultimately the father of three major religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea.” (Maimonides) These three religions, give spiritual and moral guidance to the world. They bring a message of justice and kindness. Are not our most basic laws, the Ten Commandments, not the foundation of moral and just behavior almost everywhere? The prophets taught that the one God of the Israelites was God of the entire world. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:6)
When we lost Israel and Jerusalem, and were exiled to Babylon, we learned to live amongst others. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters... But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7) And thus, our light unto others spread, not just in a religious sense, but now in many other ways. In the Diaspora, we have had great influence on every nation we have been in, and in every branch of human endeavor. Science, music, art, math, film, literature, psychology, government, and the list is limitless.
At least 204 Jews and people of half- or three-quarters Jewish ancestry have been awarded the Nobel Prize, accounting for 22% of all individual recipients worldwide between 1901 and 2019, and constituting 36% of all U.S. recipients during the same period.
The following list of Jews, from the ScienceHeroes.com website, attempts to estimate the number of human lives saved by the most important lifesaving advances in the history of science, medicine, and technology. In the order of estimated numbers of lives saved:
• Fritz Haber – Haber Bosch Process – 1.36 billion lives saved
• Karl Landsteiner – Blood transfusions (identification of blood groups) 580 million lives saved
• Abel Wolman – Chlorination of Drinking Water – 91 million lives saved
• Benjamin Rubin – Smallpox Eradication (jet injector gun) – 35.5 million lives saved
• Samuel Katz – Measles Vaccine – 15.5 million lives saved
• Sir Ernst Chain – Penicillin – 21.5 million lives saved
• Baruch Blumberg — Hepatitis B Vaccine
• Jacob Gershon-Cohen – Mammogram – 3 million lives saved
• Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin – Polio Vaccines – 3 million lives saved
I have not named all 26 Jewish scientists, physicians and engineers who are on the ScienceHeroes.com list, but if I did the number of lives saved by all their advances would total about 4.3 billion.
“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And, whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1, 22a) A light unto the nations, indeed.
A list of hundreds of Jewish authors who have contributed to world literature, which include Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Boris Pasternak, Arthur Koestler, Saul and Harold Pinter, is not even our greatest influence. It would have to be the Bible. “The Bible, the single greatest literary legacy of the Jews, has been translated into more than 2,000 languages and is the most widely read and influential body of literature in all of human history.” And, this does not take into account that 53% of the Pulitzer Prize recipients for non-fiction are Jewish. 34% of the Pulitzer Prize recipients for Drama are Jewish. 39% of the recipients of the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for Best Play are Jewish. Lastly, 40% of the Academy Award recipients for best original screenplay are Jewish. I guess we truly do light up Broadway.
On a more particular national level, the Jewish people have been involved in the history of America as early as its discovery. Seven Jewish men sailed with Christopher Columbus. In 1654, the first Jewish families arrived at New Amsterdam (New York City) with nothing and unable to pay their passage. Thirty years later, they founded the first North American synagogue: Shearith Israel. Jews learned the art of trading, opened businesses, and were heavily involved in commerce. During the American Revolution, Chaim Salomon gave his wealth to the cause of independence and almost single-handedly, according to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, financed the American Revolution.
“There have been multitudes of contributions made by Jews to America, and thus the world: Albert Einstein, theory of relativity; Sandy Koufax, baseball legend; Arthur Goldberg and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court Justices; Benny Goodman, the King of Swing; Henry Kissinger, statesman and Nobel Prize recipient; Mark Spitz, Olympic swimming star; Judith A. Resnik, second woman in Space.”
The Jewish influence in film and acting in America is vast. “Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Warner. Many talented actors and comedians of film, radio, and television are Jewish: Milton Berle, Kirk Douglas, the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Edward G. Robinson, Woody Allen, Tony Randall, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Alexander, Carl Reiner, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and Pink."
But the greatest and most significant contribution of the Jews to America — besides religious freedom, validated in George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island: “Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid... For happily the Government of the United States give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support” — sounds like Washington read Jeremiah 29:5-7 — is the Judeo-Christian values that stand as the foundation of American society, whose roots connect to the aforementioned Ten Commandments, and the teaching of the Torah.
As stated by Dennis Prager:
“The United States of America is the only country in history to have defined itself as Judeo-Christian. While the Western world has consisted of many Christian countries and consists today of many secular countries, only America has called itself Judeo- Christian. America is also unique in that it has always combined secular government with a society based on religious values.”
Prager goes on to say that it is important for Americans to understand the meaning of Judeo-Christian. He writes that it is a belief in liberty as opposed to the European belief in equality, the Muslim belief in theocracy, and the Eastern belief in social conformity. It is relevant that our coins carry two messages: “In God we trust” and “Liberty.”
Lady Liberty, standing tall in the New York harbor, still calls to the “huddled masses, yearning to be free.” Many Jews have flocked to her “golden door” of opportunity and found safe haven. The achievements of Jews who came to these “teeming shores” should never be forgotten. For the contributions of biblical moral codes by which we base our lives, we cannot extend enough gratitude. These codes have anchored us and enabled us to bring light unto the nations.
May your Chanukah be filled with the light of wisdom, morality, justice, kindness — and peace. And as our prayers oftentimes conclude: May it be so.