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Like other children of intermarriage, Joshua Boettiger struggled with the issue of religious identity, but he said that his clearest connection to Judaism surfaced during his junior year in college, which he spent in Damascus, Syria.
By then, he had already been to Israel several times, had asked himself some of the large questions about which faith to follow, but there was something about being in Damascus, where he was working on Muslim-Jewish dialogue, that clarified the matter for him.
"Most of the people I worked with closely knew I was Jewish," he said, "but for security reasons, I couldn't tell everyone. And so I was aware in a powerful way that I was repressing something that meant a great deal to my sense of self. It became clearer to me in Syria than it ever had been in Israel," said the Bard College graduate, who has a degree in comparative religion.
It took Boettiger several more years of questioning and struggle before he decided conclusively to choose Judaism and then the rabbinate as his profession. He is now in his first year at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.
This may sound like a fairly typical contemporary story, shared by many young people searching for answers, with only the details varying from case to case. But does it seem in any way typical when you learn that Boettiger happens to be the great-grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt? FDR, the 32nd president of the United States, seemed to many in his lifetime, and for long after, to be a major figure in America's Protestant elite, a young man born to wealth and privilege who was destined for the White House.
He was also a beloved figure among American Jews, the man who spoke for the working poor during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But FDR has been embroiled in controversy as well. Recent disclosures have shown that he knew more about the Nazi slaughter of the Jews than it was originally believed, and that he may have chosen not to act to save them. All of these issues, as well as Joshua's story, are told in a new book, The Presidents of the United States & the Jews by David G. Dalin and Alfred J. Kolatch, recently published by Jonathan David.
In the text we learn that Boettiger, 27, is a grandson of Anna Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor's daughter, who married John Boettiger, a Chicago Tribune reporter, in 1935. John and Anna's son, John, married a Jewish woman named Janet Adler, who had grown up in Frankfurt, Ind., where she and her family were apparently the only Jews. The Adlers moved to Miami Beach when Janet was a teenager.
Dalin and Kolatch write that when Janet married John Boettiger, "who did not convert to Judaism, Janet Adler Boettiger raised her children as Reform Jews."
In a recent interview at RRC, Boettiger said that if there were one thing he'd change in Dalin and Kolatch's brief history, "it would be that we weren't necessarily raised as Reform Jews. It would be more accurate to say that my brother and I had a respectful ecumenical upbringing." Boettiger's parents separated in 1980 when Joshua was 7, and so he and his younger brother, Paul, who were used to going to church with their father, started going "even more so after the divorce."
"I feel really blessed to have had the kind of upbringing I had," he said. "But if I identified with one religion over the other, it was definitely Judaism. I feel that in Judaism, there was a flavor that was palpable for me, even at a young age."
Both of Boettiger's parents remarried, and he noted that his stepfather, who is Jewish, has had a strong influence upon him. Boettiger's father remained in the Amherst College area, where he taught at Hampshire College, while his mother and stepfather moved to Sebastapol in Northern California. Asked how his parents have reacted to his career path, Boettiger said that his father is "thrilled" with his choice.
"He was a professor of psychology and taught political science, autobiography and the life-cycle, things like that," the rabbinical student said. "He's retired now, but I think he always felt he had a calling in theology.
"My mother's been wonderful about this. She's a movement therapist and has had a Jewish awakening of her own recently. Not exactly like mine, but she's attending a Reconstructionist shul now. So we have lots to talk about."
As for his more famous forebears, Boettiger imagines that "Eleanor would have gotten a kick" out of his decision to be a rabbi.
"But I'd have to ask my dad how he thought FDR would react," he said. "Eleanor, it was clear, was more able to transcend her upbringing and the prejudices of her class. FDR was less able to eclipse the world he came from. In the world they lived in, it's something they couldn't imagine. It's much easier in the world we live in now."
Boettiger said he's close with "selected folks" on his father's side of the family. He hasn't been to a reunion in a long time, but looks forward to doing so and discussing his future with his relatives. Boettiger is also fully aware of the controversy that swirls around his great-grandfather.
"The relationship of the Jews to FDR is extremely complex," he said. "Roosevelt was a champion of the dispossessed who had real courage, a voice for the voiceless.
"But, on the other hand, if he knew what they say he knew about the slaughter of Jews in Europe and he did not act, that is very serious, inexcusable.
"It's important to explore these questions," he said. "I think I'm uniquely qualified because of my heritage, and I hope to do it one day."