Reprinted with permission of the New York Jewish Week.
Joshua Boettiger may be the only rabbinic student who can trace his roots to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The 31-year-old is a great-grandson of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Depression and World War II leader alternately exalted and reviled by the American Jewish community.
The elder son of an Episcopalian father--the son of President Roosevelt's daughter, Anna--and a Jewish mother, Boettiger grew up attending church and synagogue. "I don't know whether to be Jewish or Christian," a 5-year-old Boettiger told his parents. "I think I'll just be Republican.
A Republican Roosevelt: Now that would be downright heretical.
"Anything but that," Boettiger remembers his mother saying.
Conservative politics was, of course, no antidote to the youngster's religious quandary.
When Boettiger was 13, his now-divorced parents threw him a "Josh Mitzvah," a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony that was more intellectual than religious in nature. But what ultimately catapulted Boettiger from a spiritual no man's land was the college semester he spent in Damascus, Syria, where he was forced to conceal his Jewish roots. "Syria had more to do with my commitment to Judaism than any of my trips to Israel," said Boettiger, who grew up in North Hampton, Mass. [sic] and Sebastopol, Calif. "It wasn't until my Jewish identity was called into question that I realized how important it was to me."
Boettiger graduated from Bard College in 1996 and worked as a carpenter, building timber-framed homes in upstate New York and Northern California. He took special interest in building "sacred spaces," like sukkahs and meditation rooms. After four years of woodworking, Boettiger began to reevaluate his career trajectory.
The roan-haired rabbinic intern, who on a recent morning donned baggy tweed pants, a brown knit sweater, small silver hoop earrings and a loosely crocheted yarmulke, said he loved working with his hands, but "missed the world of ideas."
Looking to change course, he boarded a plane for Israel. He spent the next year studying at Jerusalem's Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, constructing houses for Israel's Bedouin communities and volunteering with Rabbis for Human Rights, an interdenominational group advocating the fair and humane treatment of Palestinians living in the disputed territories.
Boettiger returned to the United States to enroll in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia. He said he was drawn to the Reconstructionist movement because "it's about affirming that we live in two cultures--one religious and one secular" and the nexus of these cultures. The ideology resonated with Boettiger, who knows a thing or two about intersecting identities.
Last year, Boettiger was a rabbinic intern at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, an Upper West Side congregation affiliated with both the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. Now in his final year of rabbinical school, he serves as a rabbinic intern at Mishkan Ha'am, a 35-family Reconstructionst synagogue in Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County.
Micah Sifry, the congregation's president, said Boettiger is an heir completely without airs. "He [embodies] a combination of youth and deep knowledge," Sifry said. "Joshua has a modest personality and a real seriousness. He is obviously on the same type of search many [of] our members are on...What's fascinating is that he is both very Jewish and carrying a bit of the Roosevelt family legacy. There's that sense of being on a moral crusade, which was true for Franklin, and maybe even more so for Eleanor. We feel blessed to share in that."
Boettiger agreed that his presidential yiches, or pedigree, complements his work as a rabbi. "Jews are commanded to work towards a just and holy society," he told The Jewish Week. Those values were mirrored in what Franklin and Eleanor worked for throughout their lives. I take from both traditions, and there's really a confluence."
The sweeping social legislation Roosevelt enacted during the Great Depression and his decision to enter World War II endeared him to American Jews, who saw him as an advocate for the poor and dispossessed. More recently though, research has questioned what the American president knew and might have done to hinder the Nazi methods of extermination, leading onetime supporters to charge that he could have done more for world Jewry.
Boettiger is quick to acknowledge that his great-grandfather could have helped save more Eastern European Jews an almost certain death in Hitler's Europe. "People ask me 'How culpable was FDR?'" Boettiger said. "I'm ambivalent to talk about it because I'm not an historian, but it's clear he didn't do all he could have. I think he was blinded by the larger focus of ending the war as soon as possible."
People want to know who is to blame for the Holocaust, Boettiger said. "I think the more important question we should be asking is 'Did we learn anything from the Holocaust?'" he said. "The short answer, and the long answer, is no," Boettiger said. "The world continues to stand by as violence and genocide is carried out."
Boettiger, who is single, still volunteers with Rabbis for Human Rights and, upon graduation from rabbinical school, wants to be a pastoral caregiver, possibly in Northern California.
Boettiger's father, John, who was the first to introduce his son to the teachings of Jewish thinkers Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, said he wholeheartedly supports his son's career choice. "It is in Joshua's nature to be a caretaker of the soul, a nourisher of the community," John Boettiger said. "I knew he would do that wherever he found himself."
He also said Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom the elder Boettiger lived in the White House until he was 7, would have been proud of Joshua's decision to enter the rabbinate.
"I think my grandfather would have been tickled and enormously pleased," he said. "My grandmother would have been deeply affected by his choice. I think if Josh walked in her study, and said, 'Grand-mere, I'm going to be a rabbi,' she would have invited him to come and sit by the fire. She would ask him 'why' and 'how.' They would talk late into the night. He would have told her his reasons for becoming a rabbi, and I know how warmly she would have embraced those reasons."