Posted by: Joanne Palmer
March 6, 2015
ZOA in the news

Cover Story about Mort Klein’s Life in the Jewish Standard

Lecture: Ahavath Torah Englewood, NJ, 7:30 PM, Sunday

Of course, in some senses it is not at all a true statement, nor a fair one. The organization is growing, it is establishing regional branches, and here in northern New Jersey its regional director, Laura Fein, is working actively and visibly to establish the ZOA in what is likely to be fertile ground for it.

But Mr. Klein, who will speak in Englewood on Sunday night, has been the face, the will, and the driving force behind the ZOA for so long that to learn more about the organization, it is necessary to learn more about him.

Mr. Klein’s story is in some senses a quintessentially American one, about immigrating to this country, overcoming adversity, following dreams, juggling outsider- and insider-ness, fighting, winning, losing, winning, and continuing to fight.

Well, a reader might be thinking by now, this is quite a melodramatic opening. Yes, it is. And here’s why:

Mr. Klein was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany. His mother, Sarah Griner, was from Poland, and his father, Rabbi Herman Klein, came from Czechoslovakia. His father survived Auschwitz and his mother somehow made her way back from Siberia to the camp, and they met there. When Morton was 4, the family immigrated to Philadelphia at the invitation of a cousin who had made it there before the war; his only sibling, Samuel, who is now the distinguished Dr. Klein, the Danforth Professor of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, was born two years later.

“Arafat wasn’t serious about peace. That’s what the data showed and the evidence required me to say. People would call me a dangerous right-winger, but I was just being serious about facts.”

Morton Klein is a dapper man. He dresses carefully and well; he is courtly, courteous, and properly rather than oppressively well mannered. He is warm and engaging as he speaks.

He also has Tourette’s syndrome; he makes a kind of involuntary guttural wheezing noise between phrases. It is startling. He has been living with it all his life, he explains, and clearly he is not at all fazed by it, even as it unnerves new acquaintances. His father had it too, he explains, and gave it as a gift to his son. It was an unwanted present, he adds, with equanimity. After a short time, a visitor almost ceases to notice it.

But it is impossible not to think about the amount of courage it had to have taken to embark on a career as a public figure, speaking to large groups and in small, intense settings. All politics aside, it is impossible not to be both moved and impressed by a sense of mission and calling that profound.

So — back to biography.

Mr. Klein’s father was a chasidic rabbi who found work in small, poor synagogues in Philadelphia. “When he was in America, he stopped being a chasid,” Mr. Klein said. “He dressed normally, and he cut his beard. He was a soyfer” — a scribe — “and there always were two Torahs at home, one on the sofa, and the other on the dining room table. When we’d eat, he’d take it off the table and put it on the couch, too. When I would come home from school, though, it would be rolled out, and he’d be working on it. He also repaired tefillin.

“We were always poor. He barely made a living.”

His mother did not have a formal job — she always did volunteer work for their shul — but she also sold Judaica. “She would go to New York, buy things wholesale, and sell them from home for extra money.”

When he was a child, “we never had a car, never went out to dinner, never went to camp. We couldn’t afford new clothes, but there was a welfare agency that would give free clothes to poor people. I remember being so excited about going there. That’s how we lived.”

Although his parents both had been through hell, neither lost faith. “My father died in 1976 at 66,” Mr. Klein said. “He never recovered” from the nightmare of the Holocaust. “He lost eight brothers and sisters — everyone in his family except for the cousin in Philadelphia. He was always sad. He would say ‘Why did I survive?’

“But he always kept Torah. He never lost his faith in God.”

Sarah Klein is almost 93 and lives in St. Louis now. “She lost half her family,” Mr. Klein said. “To this day, I don’t know all her story. In Siberia, she was in and out of prison for selling on the black market to support her family. After the war, she heard that it was good to get to a DP camp to get from there to America, so she did.

“She is a religious woman,” he continued. “She had no material things, but she never complained. She was thrilled that she married a scholar, who kept Torah. That was the biggest thing that she could have done, and she did it.”

The family lived in a poor black neighborhood. “Until I was 16, virtually all my friends were black,” Mr. Klein said. “I was — I am — very comfortable around black people.” He was athletic, too. “In my neighborhood, I was an average athlete, and I thought I was okay, but no better than that. And then, when I was 16, we moved to a white, Jewish neighborhood — and I realized that I was a superstar.”

His main sport was baseball — he had been an all-star third baseman in Little League in Philadelphia; he couldn’t play in high school because he’d have had to play on Shabbat. “I was a power hitter, and I batted third,” he said. “I was very good in football and basketball.”

That move was to northwest Philadelphia; Rabbi Klein had gotten a “little better job” in a slightly more successful shul, his son said.

Secular education had not been the family’s major concern. “They never promoted education,” Mr. Klein said. “They just wanted us to study Torah and live a Jewish life. My mother would always tell us, ‘Don’t get a job that is stressful. It’s important to make a living — but don’t worry about making a lot of money.’”

Telling the story, he laughed. “My brother and I both went into stressful fields,” he said.

His education had been partly in yeshivot, partly out of them, depending on how much his parents could afford. “They gave my father a scholarship — they asked for $3 a week and that included lunch — but he couldn’t,” Mr. Klein said. It was an oddly diverse experience — the public schools were nearly all black, and the yeshivot were in a world insulated from that public school experience.

He went to Central High School in Philadelphia, the city’s academic school for boys. (As an aside, he said that he was at school with Jeremiah Wright, the incendiary and controversial black pastor whose racist, anti-white rhetoric engulfed President Barack Obama, his one-time parishioner, in a political mess during his first election campaign. “He was one of the richest kids in the school, and his mother was an academic principal of Girls High School,” Central’s equivalent. “We didn’t even see color, and yet he became a hater,” Mr. Klein said.)

“I did well in school,” Mr. Klein said. “I was a serious student. I loved math, and I was good at it. And if you’re good at math, you can do it fast. If you’re good at history and English, you have to read 10 books just to do well…”

He went to Temple University on a scholarship, majoring in math and economics, and lived at home until his senior year. After college, Mr. Klein became a high school math teacher. He got a job at George Washington High School, where his brother was a senior. “We both lived at home, and it was embarrassing. The kids would see us both get out of our mother’s car, and she’d hand me my lunch bag.”

After two years, Mr. Klein applied to graduate schools for a masters in statistics. He accepted an offer from Temple that came with a full scholarship plus a $300 monthly stipend. “I didn’t even have to teach and it wasn’t taxable,” he said. Two years later, he took his new degree and moved to Washington, D.C., where he got a government job as a senior health policy analyst in the agency that was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. “I was in the top policy-making arm of the federal government during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations,” he said.

During that period, he got married; his wife, Rita Klein, who recently retired from a nearly 40-year career as a reading teacher, finishing as the chair of the department.

Although we think of Morton Klein solely in terms of Israel now, his first passion was for nutrition. It is, in fact, a family passion — his brother’s full title is Danforth Professor of Medicine and Nutritional Science, and he is also the director of the medical school’s Center for Human Nutrition.

Mr. Klein’s government stint ended when he met Linus Pauling, the scientist and peace activist who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize ten years later, in an extraordinary feat shared by no one else.

“I met him in Philadelphia at a lecture, and he saw that we had similar interests,” Mr. Klein said. “I had a serious interest in nutrition and disease. I don’t know how it happened — but I read a lot about it then, and then nobody thought about nutrition and nutrients. And I had a background in biostatistics, so Pauling asked me to help him with his research.”

Mr. Klein did not move to California, although he traveled there often, he added.

“Pauling was a great intellect,” Mr. Klein continued. “He knew everything about chemistry, pharmacology, medicine, nutrition, molecular biology, physical chemistry.… He just knew everything, and it was at his fingertips. By 27, he was a full professor at CalTech.

“And he was a very close friend. I loved working with him.”

There was one subject that the two men could not discuss, though. Israel.

“Pauling was extremely hostile to Israel,” Mr. Klein said. “He was not hostile to Jews. He was not anti-Semitic. But he was very anti-Israel.

“I have a letter from him, where he was just pouring his heart out to me. He wrote ‘Mort, I can’t believe that someone as analytical as you are can believe in God, and can support Israel, which is a militaristic state.’

“The letter talked about how religions are the cause of most wars.

“When I got it, I was going to tear it up. I said that this is a disgusting letter, and that I would rip it up, and my wife said ‘No, no, don’t do that. He is a world-renowned scientist.’” So he kept it; it’s in a box somewhere, along with the rest of the voluminous, non-incendiary correspondence the two maintained. “We decided not to discuss Israel ever,” Mr. Klein said. “We kept our relationship on a professional level, on the importance of nutrition on disease.

“My own last professional article was in the medical journal Epidemiology. It’s on the value of Vitamin C in preventing heart disease.” It was published in 1992, and Mr. Klein, one of only three authors, is listed as its technical consultant. It was a groundbreaking study.

Meanwhile, back at home, “my wife started saying that the world and the media are attacking Israel all the time, and all you’re doing is making a living. You are not helping your people, with all the talents that God gave you.

“So, in order not to lose my wife’s respect, I started reading about the Arab war against Israel. I hadn’t known anything.

“I said, ‘I don’t know how to be an activist. I don’t know anything.’ So I armed myself with facts by reading a lot.

“A friend of mine told me he was gong to Israel and got a Baedecker’s travel guide. The American Jewish Congress had recommended it — and it had dozens and dozens of lies about Israel. And my daughter came home from school with her new history textbook. She was in 11th grade, and it was D. C. Heath’s ‘The Enduring Vision.’ Every paragraph about Israel had one or more lies against Israel.

“I wrote two articles about Baedecker’s in the Jerusalem Post, and Baedecker’s got in touch with me, and told me that they were very upset about the articles. They invited me to Germany to meet with them, all expenses paid. I had never been back. I went there on Lufthansa, first class, met with the board, and they hired me to rewrite the travel book.

“I rewrote it.”

“About my daughter’s textbook — I went to the school board and I complained. I wrote a series of articles about it, and the publisher, Heath, got in touch with me and asked me to rewrite it. So I rewrote it, and they put out a new one within six months.”

Ironically, he added, the chairwoman of the school board, who was Jewish, called him to complain that his activism might trigger anti-Semitism. “That was my first lesson in Jewish fear,” Mr. Klein said.

He also helped Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Jewish Republican in his nail-bitingly close 1992 race against Lynn Yeakel, a liberal Democrat whose platform many Jews found more appealing than Specter’s. Ms. Yeakel was a vice chairman of the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, whose pastor’s sermons, Mr. Klein said, were “viciously anti-Semitic.” Mr. Specter ended up winning the election, and Mr. Klein was both lionized and vilified all around town.

As a result of the publicity he garnered with these campaigns, “people from the ZOA came and asked me to be on the local board, and then to run for president,” Mr. Klein said. The presidency, at least as he saw it, was a full-time job, not an honorary position, but it was unpaid. He had given up his well-paying career “because the ZOA had no money, and if I hadn’t committed myself to saving the organization by raising money, it would have died.

“So my wife said, ‘Look, I’m a teacher. I make a living.’ With her full support, I did it, and she never complained.”

That was 1993. Six years passed.

“Then I was about to quit because we ran out of money, but one of my major donors at ZOA said that if I could get the bylaws” — the rules that defined the presidency as a volunteer rather than a professional job — “changed, I’ll pay the salary,” Mr. Klein said.

“I got the bylaws passed and he increased his gift.”

When he first took the presidency, Mr. Klein said, he knew that he would have to fundraise, “so I started writing. We are the only significant group that opposed Oslo” — Oslo is the shorthand for the 1993 accords that included the iconic handshake between Israel’s President Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat, with President Bill Clinton gazing on benignly, and whose promises are yet to be fulfilled.

The accords were very popular in the Jewish world, because they offered hope. Because the media needed someone to represent the other side, “they would quote me, because no one else would criticize Arafat and Oslo. So I was able to raise enough money to survive.

“Since then, I have had many billionaire donors, and we are in good shape. I now have two full-time lobbyists and a law and justice center. I created a campus program with seven full-time professionals, and an Israel trip. It goes to Judea and Samaria — no other trip goes there. And we are slowly expanding, chapter by chapter. We now have eight full-time chapters with full-time professionals.”

He is not sure when his active involvement in ZOA will end. Retirement does not beckon. He still feels needed.

“I miss math,” he said. “I loved math. It was my greatest academic love. I love solving math problems, because you get a real answer. In this business, there are no answers. Math was much more satisfying.”

He does not see much hope ahead.

“Pauling would always say, ‘Mort, tell me what the data require us to believe, not your hopes and dreams for it. The data tell us what is true, and that is what I believe.’

“Arafat wasn’t serious about peace. That’s what the data showed and the evidence required me to say. People would call me a dangerous right-winger, but I was just being serious about facts.

“Things now just keep getting worse. The world has never been more hostile to Israel. The most conclusive proof was when Israel went to war to defend itself against Hamas, and the whole world defended Hamas. I realized, oh my God, hatred of Jews is back. It must have always been there, under the radar, but now they use this excuse to show their enormous enmity toward Jews.

“I am not a Republican,” Mr. Klein said; nor is he a Democrat. “I vote for who I think is best for Israel. If Israel weren’t in trouble, I would vote on other issues, but when you have a child who is sick, you focus on that child, because that child is in trouble.

“Israel is in trouble. It needs help,” Morton Klein said.

Lecture Information
Who: Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of AmericaWhat: Will talk about Israel

When: Sunday, March 8, at 7:30 pm

Where: Congregation Ahavath Torah, 240 Broad Ave., Englewood

How: Free and open to all; refreshments

Furthermore: A sponsor’s reception is at 6:15; a donation is requested. Emailzoanj@zoa.org for location.

For information or to register: EmailZOANJ@zoa.org

This article was published by the Jewish Standard and may be found here.