From Bullied to Builder
Young Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr.
The story behind the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom comes directly from the life of its founder, Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr.
Towards the end of World War II, Ambassador Loeb was a high school student at an elite prep school in New England. The school’s mostly white-male students were from well-to-do and well-educated families. There were few minorities in the school—refugees from Europe and two American Jews—one of whom was John L. Loeb, Jr.
Saturday night was movie night, and the whole student body attended. The first newsreel pictures of the German concentration camps appeared on the screen—horrible, disturbing images of the dead and near-dead emaciated men, women and children in degrading striped uniforms. The pictures took John’s breath away.
What happened next completely shocked John—the entire student body cheered and hooted. Afterwards, as they left the auditorium, a group of classmates approached him and sneered, “Well, we don’t like Hitler, but at least he killed the Jews.”
John was stunned. He believed religion didn’t matter as long as people were Americans.
His experience that terrible night fired in him a lifelong quest to find the basis for hatred of the Jews. As an adult he sought peace in his own heart and explored ways to teach young people how to live with more than tolerance—to live with warmth and understanding of people whose backgrounds and beliefs are different from one’s own.
Years later, as John searched to learn what our Founding Fathers thought about God and religion, he came upon Washington’s extraordinary Letter to the Hebrew Congregation. He had never heard of it and discovered that practically nobody else he knew had ever heard of it either!
The Letter transformed John’s thinking and life. He credits it, coupled with his memories of the painful confrontation with his schoolmates, as his inspiration and motivation for building both the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, one of the nation’s leading organizations working to promote religious freedom, and the Loeb Visitors Center, a state-of-the-art interpretive center located in Newport, RI. The aim of each is to help people everywhere more fully understand and appreciate the important American right of religious freedom.
For more about the biography of Ambassador Loeb, see: About Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr.