Two pictures sit side by side on a wall in my study at the synagogue. One is a painting of the ship the Vaterland. The others is a photograph of the ship the Leviathan.
The Vaterland was the ship my grandfather took from Europe in the early 1900s. According to family lore, my grandfather, searching for the freedom and opportunity afforded by the United States, jumped from the Vaterland while it was docked in New York Harbor.
The Leviathan was a troop ship that brought US soldiers to Europe to fight in World War One.
The Vaterland and the Leviathan were the same ship.
Yes, the ship that brought my grandfather to America was seized by the US government and used as part of the fight to restore world order during WWI.
I look at the painting my grandfather did of the Vaterland in 1923 and I am reminded of the sacrifices he made so that he could marry and raise a family in the greatest country on the planet.
I look at the photograph of the troops sitting on the deck of the Leviathan and I am reminded that the freedom and security offered in the U.S. come at a price.
I look at the two pictures sitting side by side and I am reminded of how fortunate I am to have been born and raised as a US citizen. And I am reminded that the opportunities afforded to me by my grandfather and this nation place upon me a responsibility to use the life I have been given wisely.
Because of my grandfather I grew up in the comfort and safety of suburban New Jersey.
Because of my grandfather I was able to work on my first presidential campaign when I was only 7 years old. (I supported the losing Democratic ticket.)
Because of my grandfather I obtained a passport at an early age and was able to travel to the Caribbean for vacation and to Israel to become Bar Mitzvah.
Because of my grandfather I am able to lead a large Reform synagogue, and I do so ever aware that the authorities are there to protect my community rather than persecute us.
Because of my grandfather I am able to vote each November and know that my vote counts as much as it does for any other citizen.
Because of my grandfather I was able to travel to Washington in September and lobby against the deal with Iran. My ability to take a position contrary to the Administration was an example of democracy at work.
Yes, because of my grandfather I am free to speak my mind and take positions- on the Iran deal and many other issues- without fear of negative consequence.
On this Thanksgiving, and every day, I am grateful for the risk my Grandpa Alex took and for the gift he gave me by jumping from a ship in New York Harbor.
In the Torah portion Lech Lecha God calls to Abram and says, “"Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.”
My grandfather left his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house. He came to a land of opportunity. And because of what he did, I am reminded each and every day that I am blessed. We all are.
Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen, D.Min. is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, NJ. He is a member of the AIPAC National Council and, in his free time, the Senior Editor of the online technology blog Gear Diary.