Growing up as a young boy, John had no conscious experience of anti-Semitism. He once asked his mother how to respond to a schoolmate’s question, “What are you?” She replied, “You’re an American, dear.” Nonetheless, during his high school years at Hotchkiss, John encountered several episodes of anti-Jewish feeling. The most painful and enduring occurred in 1945 during a Saturday night film showing on campus. The newsreel preceding the feature film showed the first images of the Nazi death camps. John’s classmates cheered. From that day to today, John has invested countless hours of effort to understand the roots of anti-Semitism and religious bigotry in general, and millions of dollars of his personal wealth to combat both.
George Washington’s Letter
Our first president’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island of 1790” is the touchstone of John’s understanding of religious freedom and separation of church and state. John first encountered it on a visit to Newport during his college days. Walking through the city’s Old Quarter, John happened on Touro Synagogue, the nation’s oldest active Jewish house of worship and home of the congregation to which Washington sent his Letter. It promised the congregation that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” and that religious belief (or non-belief) is every individual’s inherent natural right. According to Washington’s biographer Ron Chernow, the Letter “ranks as his most beautifully enduring statement on religious toleration.” John’s interest in genealogy led him to discover that his grandmother Adeline Moses Loeb was descended from one of the founding families of Touro Synagogue, which only strengthened his attachment to the Letter.
Loeb Visitors Center
John’s devotion to the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state and his pride in his early American Jewish heritage moved him to create the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Visitors Center at the Touro Synagogue National Historic Site. After eight years of planning and development, the Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue opened on August 2, 2009. It features interactive exhibits about Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island as a haven of religious liberty; the history of Newport’s early Jewish community and relations between Jews and Christians in the town; biographies of important early Jewish residents of Newport such as Emma Lazarus and the Judah and Abraham Touro; an account of Reverend Ezra Stiles and his diary, from which we have learned much about early Jewish life in Newport; a video explaining the architectural history of the Touro Synagogue, and a section devoted to George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation. (See below for details.) John has written, “If I have a legacy, I hope it will be the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Visitors Center, my tribute to my Newport ancestors, to reducing anti-Semitism, and my most enduring contribution to teaching and celebrating the history of religious freedom for all in America.”
When the Loeb Visitors Center was completed in 2009, John founded the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom (GWIRF), an educational non-profit organization, to carry the message of Washington’s Letter outside the Visitors Center to a wide audience of students and teachers around the world. Realizing that GWIRF needed to multiply its impact quickly, John formed partnerships with leading civic education organizations and developed programs, projects, and publications to spread the word of Washington’s message.
Essays Contests and Letter Reading Events
As early as 1992, John began funding an annual prize at Hotchkiss for the best essay on toleration by a rising senior. He expanded that to Harrison (NY) High School and the Rogers High School in Newport, RI. In 2008 and again in 2012-13, he sponsored the First Freedom Center in Richmond, VA to conduct a national essay competition that reached more than a thousand schools, allowing hundreds of thousands of students to read Washington’s Letter for the first time. In 2010, GWIRF placed a copy of the Letter in the hands of all 30,000 high school students in Rhode Island on Washington’s Birthday. GWIRF also disseminated information for teachers about how to conduct a Letter Reading in their classrooms. Several of Rhode Island’s elected officials joined John and members of GWIRF’s staff and board of directors to conduct Letter Readings at selected schools.
GWIRF also sponsored two major symposia about the Letter. The first was held at New York University in 2011. The second, in 2013, kicked off the Loeb Initiative on Religious Freedom at Harvard, and was chaired by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Teacher Training and Publications
Having had success promoting essay contests and Letter Readings, John reached out to two organizations that specialize in training teachers in the realm of tolerance and civic participation: The Bill of Rights Institute in Arlington, VA and Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization with headquarters in Brookline, MA. Both organizations developed curricular materials and offered free workshops sponsored by GWIRF across the United States (and in Europe by Facing History) training several thousand teachers in full-day sessions in how to integrate the Letter into their own classrooms.
Loeb Institute at GWU
In 2016, John endowed the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. In its brief life, the Institute is attracting participation from numerous departments in the university’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, as well as its Schools of Law and Medicine. GWU’s departments of religion, peace studies, history, political science and others have created programs, begun developing curriculum, initiated collaborations both on and off campus, and will maintain GWIRF’s ambassadorial outreach efforts. Professor Samuel Goldman, a political scientist, serves as the Institute’s inaugural director.