February 2012: John L. Loeb Jr. '48

Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. ’48, scion of two famous Wall Street families and their original firms of Lehman Brothers and Loeb Rhoades, has received much recognition for his service during a long career as a diplomat, businessman, Sonoma-Loeb winemaker, Danish art collector, and philanthropist.

Two awards are especially meaningful to him: the Grand Cross of the Order of Dannebrog (comparable to a knighthood) from Queen Margrethe II for his contributions to Denmark during his tenure as the U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark (1981-1983); and a C.B.E. (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II for his leadership as president and chairman for many years of the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States.

What Loeb feels will be his legacy, however, “if I have one,” he says modestly, “is having made lemonade out of the lemons of severe anti-Semitism that I experienced during my first years at Hotchkiss.” He surmounted the early harassment and rose to become the editor of the Hotchkiss Record and to serve on the Student Council. “Hotchkiss provided me with a wonderful educational background, enabling me to succeed at Harvard (graduating cum laude) and Harvard Business School, for which I will always be grateful. Most serendipitous of all, my experience at Hotchkiss inspired my lifelong purpose of nurturing tolerance in this country--and in the rest of the world as well.”

One of the steps Loeb took to overcome anti-Semitism was to establish and sponsor an ongoing essay contest at Hotchkiss in 1992, first called the “Loeb Essay on Tolerance and Mutual Respect” but recently re-named “The George Washington Letter Award.” The essays are based on a letter affirming religious freedom, written by George Washington to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, which says that under his leadership this new country would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Ron Chernow, Washington’s most recent biographer, writes in Washington, A Life that this letter “ranks as his most beautifully enduring statement on religious toleration.” Reflecting on the contest, Loeb says, “The wonderful essays written by Hotchkiss students every year give me great hope for the future of tolerance in this country.”

While a student at Harvard, Loeb visited Newport, Rhode Island and the Touro Synagogue campus where he first encountered the George Washington Letter. He remembers, “On that day I read for the first time a copy of that magnificent treasure—the new president’s letter to that tiny, hopeful congregation of Jews in 1790. My eyes filled with tears, and I felt a sudden strength wash over me, and a new appreciation of being both Jewish and American.”

“Over the years following my first reading of the Letter, it has been a major inspiration for my life. One of my goals has been to see that every child in this country has an opportunity to read and study that letter, and to teach every American about the separation of church and state as enunciated in that letter. I have since initiated similar essay contests at the Harrison High School, Westchester County, New York; the Rogers High School, Newport, Rhode Island; and the Walt Whitman High School, Bethesda, Maryland. What these students have written has been magnificent.”

Loeb has formed the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom (GWIRF) as a conduit to take the ideas and principles found in the Letter to an even wider audience. GWIRF, among other initiatives, has been working with like-minded educational groups such as the First Freedom Center in Richmond, Virginia. In the school year 2008-2009, that organization ran an essay contest about the Letter and distributed copies of it to their national network of more than 75,000 teachers and almost 300 schools. One of the teachers involved wrote in her report to the First Freedom Center, “The Washington Letter is awesome. I had never heard of it before I saw it as a theme for your contest, and I will definitely use it as an assignment for my classes. This country really needs to work on tolerance.”

In 1996 a different way opened to help the ambassador make the importance of that Letter more generally known. “I was approached by members of the Touro Synagogue congregation in Newport about a project they had in mind, and I responded. In 1997 I began what turned out to be a 12-year project of building the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Visitors Center on the Touro Synagogue campus in Newport. (The Touro Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in America, built in 1763, before the American Revolution.) One of the Center’s primary exhibits features the story of the George Washington Letter and the remarkable history behind it. The Center also focuses on the general history of religious freedom in America, including the fact that Rhode Island was the first political entity to separate the state from religion. Much of the material for this history came from the diary of a remarkable Protestant minister in Newport, the Reverend Ezra Stiles, who later became president of Yale University.”

Most recently, a worldwide educational organization based in Boston called “Facing History and Ourselves” has been working closely with GWIRF. Facing History teaches more than 100,000 teachers around the globe how to deal with “the other,” most especially -- in today’s climate of terrorism -- the Muslim community. In partnership with GWIRF, Facing History has launched a multi-year initiative titled “Give Bigotry No Sanction: Exploring Religious Freedom and Democracy” to stimulate classroom discussions about the place of religious liberty, separation of church and state, and cultural diversity in democratic societies. Multiple workshops and other events are scheduled to take place, so far in Memphis, Boston, Denver, Cleveland and San Francisco. The website for this project is nobigotry.facinghistory.org.

Loeb is eager to have his fellow Hotchkiss alumni know about the GWIRF website (www.GWIRF.org) where teachers, students, and others can find historical documents and curricula for study of the principles found in the George Washington Letter. He adds, “This mission for promoting tolerance has been increasingly occupying my time, attention, and energy over the last fifteen years, and it is the most meaningful commitment of my life.”

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