The Cantonists and the Affordable Care Act

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

There is a story recounted in my family about my great, great grandfather, who was miraculously saved from becoming a Cantonist.

In 1827, Czar Nicholas I decreed that all Jewish boys eight years and older would be conscripted into his army. My great, great grandfather, Yitzchak Meyeer, was playing in front of his home when a group of Russian soldiers swooped down upon him and threw him in a wagon together with many other Jewish boys destined to serve at least 25 years in the Czar’s army.

One of the main objectives of this conscription was to convert the children to Orthodox Christianity. Sent far from their homes, no longer under the influence of their parents, they were easy prey for the missionary efforts of the Czar. Enduring untold pain, these poor hapless boys lived a horrible life.

The wagons carrying my great, great grandfather and the other boys traveled a long distance toward their destination. During the trip a plague broke out among the boys. The soldiers decided to simply lock them in the wagons and set the wagons on fire. Yitzchak Meyeer was able to escape by breaking through the floorboards. The screams of the boys caught the attention of a nearby Jewish community. A Jewish family found Yitzchak Meyeer roaming aimlessly along the highway. They took him in and arranged with the Jewish underground to spirit him away to Jassy, Romania. There he eventually met his future wife Priva who, together with her mother, was involved in the Jewish underground secreting away young Jewish boys from the Czar’s army. My great, great, great grandmother was caught on one of her trips arrested and brought before a tribunal. Accused of high treason, she slapped the prosecuting officer across his face and pointing to a large picture of Czar Nicholas I on the wall, said, “How dare you lie in front of a picture of the Czar.” Taken aback by her action, the tribunal let her go.

This horrible effort to convert Jewish boys to Orthodox Christianity became an international scandal. In 1857, bowing to international pressure, Czar Alexander II finally put an end to the Cantonist program.

Yitzchak Meyeer and Priva had 16 children, one of whom was my great grandmother Pessa, who with her husband Ksiel Finkelstein, eventually, as millions of other Jews, made their way to the “goldena medina”, the golden land, living out their lives in religious freedom in New York City.

This tragic story in my family’s history motivated my few words spoken at the recent rally for religious freedom held on June 8 in Chicago’s Federal Plaza. Prompted by the Affordable Care Act, which requires providing medical services to employees that are unacceptable in Catholic tradition, the rally was aimed at once again speaking out for religious freedom – separation of Church and State.

My position is simply stated. One of the many considerations one contemplates when seeking employment is not only the salary offered but the benefits offered as well. Indeed each and every one of us would be delighted to receive the medical benefits given to members of Congress. Yet we all know that few of us receive such a wonderful medical package. Depending upon our employer, we may receive a package which includes vision, dental and other benefits, or as is the case with some Rabbis such as myself, no medical package whatsoever. It is for us to determine if we wish to accept the employment offer or not.

Yet the Affordable Care Act would require the Catholic Church to be a part of providing, in some fashion, medical benefits that violate Catholic belief. This in my opinion, and in the opinion of many, is a violation of the time-honored American tradition, a foundational principle of the very purpose of our great nation, of separation of Church and State.

When speaking before the rally, I could see, in my mind’s eye, the terrified face of my great, great grandfather who, after being rescued from the grasp of the Russian army, was so traumatized, in such a state of shock, that all he could remember was his father’s name.

Jews more than any other group understand the horror of the State putting limits upon our personal religious expression. For centuries under the cross or crescent, governments across the globe have limited or outlawed altogether the right of Jews to practice their religious beliefs. Too often, in an effort to bring us to the “true faith,” Jewish communities were attacked, murdered or expelled from one nation after another. We who understand the pain of religious persecution should be most sensitive to any incursion upon any religious faith no matter how minor as an attack upon all religious beliefs.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson represented this protection of free religious expression, in his letter to the Baptist community of Danbury Connecticut, as a “wall of separation between Church and State.” Ever vigilant, we Jews should stand the watch on that wall. My speech on June 8th represented my turn on guard.

I am hopeful that, as stated in the resolution of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Administration, “in consultation with relevant religious bodies, [will]… include further necessary protections to safeguard the religious rights of all Americans.”