Tag Archives: Columbia University

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.”

Are Pig Gelatin and Synthetic Pork Kosher?

Words of the Week

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

Jews of the Week: Mendes Seixas Family

Gershom Mendes Seixas

Antonio Abraham Mendes Seixas (d. 1738) was born in a small village in Portugal to a family of Conversos (or Marranos), Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity but continued to practice their ancestral faith in secret. The Seixas family was made up of physicians, lawyers, and merchants, and were among the most successful in Portugal. Despite this, they were still hounded by the Inquisition, and many were imprisoned or put to death. Abraham Mendes Seixas himself barely escaped the Inquisition, and settled in London with his wife and three kids around 1725. There, the family openly returned to Judaism, and Seixas renewed his marriage vows under a proper chupah in a public ceremony. Seixas quickly rebuilt his wealth and became a prominent member of London’s growing Sephardic community. When he passed away in 1738 he left very little for his only son, Isaac Mendes Seixas (b. 1709) apparently believing he was unfit to run the business. Isaac set forth for a new start in America. The son proved a good businessman, and quickly rose to the highest ranks of the merchant class in the New World. He married Rachel Levy, daughter of the great (former Jew of the WeekMoses Levy, and became an important member of Shearith Israel, one of America’s first synagogues.

Isaac’s son, Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745-1816) was the hazzan of that synagogue, and although not ordained for the role, served as its rabbi. Some say he may have been the first rabbi born in America, while others point out he was the first rabbi to give sermons in English. He was also the first Jew to sit on the board of an American university (Columbia). His good friend of twenty years, and fellow on Columbia’s board, was Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. It is quite likely that Gershom helped Hamilton in drafting and promoting some of the famous Federalist Papers. Meanwhile, Gershom’s older brother Moses Mendes Seixas (1744-1809) moved to Newport and became one of its richest businessmen. He co-founded the Bank of Rhode Island, and served as president of Touro Synagogue, America’s first (and also to whom George Washington wrote one of his most well-known letters). Meanwhile, younger brother Benjamin Mendes Seixas (1748-1817) was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange, and youngest brother Abraham Mendes Seixas (1751-1799) was a decorated officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The entire family was known for their tremendous patriotism and philanthropy.

Did You Know These People Are Jewish, Too?

Words of the Week

For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
– George Washington, in his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue and the Jewish community of Newport.