Category Archives: Extraordinary Individuals

Unique Jews In a Category of Their Own

Jew of the Week: Eddie Jacobson

The Man Who Made Israel Possible

Eddie Jacobson with Harry Truman

Edward Jacobson (1891-1955) was born in New York City to Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants. The family was extremely poor, and soon set out for new opportunities in the Midwest. As a teenager, Jacobson worked in a Kansas City factory and became good friends with one Harry Truman. The two eventually parted ways, with Truman enlisting in the National Guard and Jacobson working as a salesman. Years later, at the outbreak of World War I, Jacobson enlisted in the army and happened to be placed in the 129th Field Artillery – where Truman was first lieutenant. Over the course of the war, Truman and Jacobson ran a unit canteen (where soldiers can buy goods), starting it off by collecting $2 from their fellow soldiers to get their initial stock. While most canteens inevitably lose money, Truman’s and Jacobson’s canteen actually turned a huge profit. They were able to return the $2 to all the soldiers, and eventually raised $10,000 in profits. After the war, they used some of this money to try their hand at a number of business (including the Truman & Jacobson Haberdashery), all of which ultimately failed. Truman would go into politics, while Jacobson remained a travelling salesman. Whenever he happened to be in Washington, Jacobson would make sure to visit his old friend. In 1945, Jacobson founded Westport Menswear in Kansas City and finally found success in business. Meanwhile, in 1944, President Roosevelt was running to be re-elected for an unprecedented fourth term. He realized that to win he would have to replace his increasingly unpopular vice president, and the party eventually settled on the likeable and devout Truman. The duo won the election, and were sworn in on January 20, 1945. However, Roosevelt was in failing health, and would often get severe headaches or suddenly fall unconscious. Just 82 days later, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving Truman with the presidency. Throughout this time, Jacobson and Truman retained their strong friendship, and some report that Jacobson had open access to the Oval Office. In early 1948, the Zionists were campaigning for support of their hopeful state. While Truman sympathized with the Jews, the US State Department was vehemently opposed to the creation of a Jewish state. So many Jews were petitioning Truman that he refused to hear any more of it. When Chaim Weizmann made a last-ditch effort trip to the US, Truman wouldn’t meet him. It was then that Jacobson, though reluctant and afraid to damage his lifelong friendship with Truman, approached him and said: “Your hero is Andrew Jackson. I have a hero too. He’s the greatest Jew alive. I’m talking about Chaim Weizmann. He’s an old man and very sick, and he has traveled thousands of miles to see you.” Truman relented, and Weizmann managed to convince him to support a Jewish state. While the State Department warned Truman that he would risk losing the support of Arabs, and more importantly, their oil supply, Truman replied that he would decide “on the basis of justice, not oil.” Less than two months later, Ben-Gurion declared independence, and Truman was the first to recognize the State of Israel just 11 minutes later. When Truman left the presidency, he intended to take a trip to the Holy Land, and Jacobson was planning to be his guide. Unfortunately, Jacobson died of a sudden heart attack before it could happen. The Truman Library maintains a huge collection of documents and correspondence between Jacobson and Truman (available here), and there is now a play, called ‘Eddie’, based on their warm relationship.

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Words of the Week

Hitler had been murdering Jews right and left. I saw it, and I dream about it even to this day. The Jews needed some place where they could go. It is my attitude that the American government couldn’t stand idly by while the victims of Hitler’s madness are not allowed to build new lives.
– President Harry S. Truman

Jew of the Week: Liviu Librescu

The Holocaust Survivor Who Saved a Classroom

Liviu Librescu (1930-2007) was born in Ploiesti, Romania. In November of 1940, the Romanian government allied with Nazi Germany, and Librescu’s family was deported to a labour camp. Eventually, they ended up in the Focsani Ghetto from which Librescu was liberated in 1945. He stayed in Romania and enrolled in aerospace engineering studies (inspired by his time watching birds fly in and out of the ghetto). A year after graduating he joined the Bucharest Institute of Applied Mechanics where he served as a researcher for 22 years. In 1969, Librescu earned his Ph.D in fluid dynamics, and wrote some very important papers that were unfortunately unknown in the West. He was also recruited by the government to work on top secret military projects. However, Librescu was soon fired for refusing to swear allegiance to the Romanian Communist Party and for requesting to emigrate to Israel. Thankfully, one of his groundbreaking research papers was smuggled out of Romania and brought him international attention. It reached the desk of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who personally put pressure on the Romanian government to free Librescu. In 1978, the Romanians relented and Librescu made aliyah to the Holy Land. For the next seven years, Librescu taught at Tel-Aviv University and the world-famous Technion in Haifa. In 1985, he took a sabbatical year and visited Virginia Tech in the US. He decided to stay and joined their Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics. Librescu went on to become one of Virginia Tech’s most famous and beloved professors. He is credited with publishing more papers (250) than any other Virginia Tech professor, and among his many awards are a Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research and a Frank J. Maher Award for Excellence in Engineering Education. He was also on the editorial boards of seven scientific journals, and a guest editor of five more. On April 16, 2007, Librescu was teaching his regular class when a gunman walked into the engineering building at Virginia Tech and opened fire. When the gunman tried to enter Librescu’s classroom, the professor blocked the door and told his students to escape through the windows. He was fatally shot five times. All but one of his students were able to escape. The remaining 22 were saved by Librescu’s heroic actions. In a horrible twist of irony, the Virginia Tech shooting took place on the 27th of Nisan – Holocaust Memorial Day. President Băsescu of Romania posthumously awarded Librescu the Grand Cross of the Order of the Star of Romania (the country’s highest civilian honour), and renamed the street in front of the US Embassy in Bucharest after him. Virginia Tech’s Jewish Student Center is now named after him, too, as is a professorship at Columbia Law School. He was called the “Most Inspiring Person of 2007”. President George W. Bush eulogized Librescu with the following words: “With the gunman set to enter his class, this brave professor blocked the door with his body while his students fled to safety. On the Day of Remembrance, this Holocaust survivor gave his own life so that others may live.”

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Words of the Week

Few are guilty; all are responsible.
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel