One Little Jewish Radical

 Cadets take the oath of office during  graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Cadets take the oath of office during graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Contrary to popular belief, George Washington did not utter “So help me God” when taking his oath of office as President of the United States in 1789.  It took almost another one hundred years before the first clearly documented case of a President adding the words, “So help me God,” was recorded — when Chester A. Arthur took the oath in 1881.

The United States Air Force recently announced that the words “So help me God” were to be an optional part of the oath after an atheist airman crossed out the words on his reenlistment paperwork. Military officials had initially refused to accept the paperwork, but Department of Defense General Counsel eventually ruled that the words could be omitted.

It was the latest religious controversy in the heavily Christian Air Force, but this particular issue has ancient and somewhat surprising roots: In the early days of Christianity, it was Christians who refused to swear by powers in which they did not believe.

The airmen’s oath was written into law in 1956 and, like the Pledge of Allegiance, did not originally include any reference to God. The final sentence came into the text in 1962, just eight years after “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Even then, however, it was not an absolute requirement in the Air Force. Official policy had stated that “Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.” But the lenient policy was updated and eliminated in 2013, leading to the most recent standoff.

This attempt to force service members to swear a prescribed religious oath is the single biggest blunder by Christians since the Salem witch trials. It is an obvious loser, which is what I cannot understand.  How can anyone – Christian, Muslim, agnostic, atheist (or nothing at all), think that any government or private institution other than a church has the right to require religious oaths?

But Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson, media mogul, executive chairman, former Southern Baptist minister, and the host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s television show, “The 700 Club” reacted to the news by criticizing the Air Force as cowards for “caving in” to the “little Jewish radical” Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whom he said is “terrorizing” the military.

Pat Robertson is not pleased. Now that the Air Force is allowing atheists to omit the words “So help me God” from the oath, Robertson is flipping out over how quickly this policy was changed. But to be more correct, the Air Force changed its policy back to what it used to be.

Here is exactly what Robertson said: “There’s a left-wing radical named Mikey Weinstein who has got a group about people against religion or whatever he calls it, and he has just terrorized the armed forces. You think you’re supposed to be tough, you’re supposed to defend us, and you got one little Jewish radical who is scaring the pants off of you. You want these guys flying airplanes to defend us when you’ve got one little guy terrorizing them? That’s what it amounts to. We swear oaths, ‘So help me God,’ what does it mean? It means with God’s help. You don’t have to say you believe in God, you just have to say you want some help beside myself with the oath I’m taking. It’s just crazy. What is wrong with the Air Force? How can they fly the bombers to defend us if they cave to one little guy?

OK, that is what Robertson said. So let me look at this latest Robertson rant in more detail because there are some things that he said that are deeply troubling.

Well, first of all, it was not just “one little guy,” as Robertson claims. It was Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein and the American Humanist Association, and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and even right-winger Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former Navy Chaplain who is the Republican nominee for a seat in the Colorado State House and heads the Pray In Jesus Name Project. By the way, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, of which Weinstein the “one little Jewish radical” is president is an organization that does not oppose religion; it just opposes forcing religion of any kind down the throats of others. Weinstein is a former White House counsel to President Ronald Reagan and an Air Force veteran himself. (Oh, the irony of it all).  He is of Jewish heritage, but identifies himself as agnostic.

And what is with Robertson saying, “You don’t have to say you believe in God”? Signing the oath is admitting exactly just that! Remember: All the other branches of the Armed Forces made “So help me God” optional a long time ago. The Air Force is only now falling in line with the other services. So why did not Robertson complaining about the other branches?

The Air Force agreeing that service members’ religious beliefs should not preclude them from enlisting is not “caving in.” In my opinion, such a practice makes them stronger. It is what the Air Force should have been doing all along. How much sense does it make to ask for help from something or someone in whom you do not believe?

And another thing. There is an unsettling undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Robertson bringing up the fact that Weinstein is Jewish. I find that disturbing to say the least. Why should the fact that Weinstein is Jewish have any bearing on the conversation? Oh wait, could it be because Robertson and his 700 Club cronies are at the forefront of pushing an extremist Christian agenda! To my mind, that is what Robertson’s whole rant is really about.

The idea that the United States Air Force, or any other military institution, would be responsive and respectful to an individual’s religious beliefs, or lack of said beliefs, is a threat in Pat Robertson’s eyes. Hence, his desire to establish a correlation between service members taking the oath in its entirety and their ability to perform the duties that they are trained to perform. Just because the Air Force finally came to its senses does not mean that pilots who do not see “God as their co-pilot” will be incapable of flying airplanes. To think otherwise is to disrespect our military personnel. Our servicemen and women fight for their country so that it remains free and protected from danger. They do not fight to forcibly convert people to a specific religion. That is what ISIS does. However, Pat Robertson is hissy-fit furious about this decision, and seems to believe that allowing this change of policy means that those who exercise this option are all unfit to fly planes and fight for our country.

That is ludicrous! That is an insult to members of the armed services!

I am not sure why Robertson thinks that it is not the least bit odd to ask for help from a God in whom one does not believe. Or why he would think that allowing someone to not do this is a sign of weakness. He also does not explain what it is, exactly, that he thinks he would get out of making an atheist swear such an oath. And furthermore, when did a religious test become the standard for service to this country?

For someone who claims to be as holy as Robertson apparently does, I find it strange that he would feel so strongly about forcing someone to literally take the lord’s name in vain and to lie, both of which are big-time commandments. I would think he would take his faith just a tad more seriously.

Additionally, there are actually many Christians, such as Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Anabaptists, who do not believe in taking such oaths either. Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at UCLA, points out that the inclusion of “So help me God” is not legally necessary, as the Constitution “expressly authorizes people not to swear at all, but to affirm, without reference to God or to a sacred work.”

In this vein, Roger Williams – not the popular pianist, but the 17th century Puritan who founded the state of Rhode Island as a place of religious tolerance – also refused to take such an oath to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when he was living there because he believed that swearing before God was a sacred act of worship and prayer and thus had no place in civil proceedings. I wonder if such a profound idea has ever crossed Pat Robertson’s mind.

“Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” So wrote Roger Williams on 22 June 1670 in a letter to Major John Wilson and to Connecticut Governor Thomas Prence. Sophisticated theologians get the meaning of this totally. I suspect that Pat Robertson does not “get it.” As a human being who is capable of empathy and compassion, I simply imagine that anyone who is truly devout will be disgusted by the idea of trying to force others to pretend to be devout when they are not.

The problem is that forcing atheists to say “So help me God” is like forcing them to say that they believe in God. You cannot force someone to acknowledge a deity in which that person does not believe. Is not that a clear violation of the Constitution and is it not precisely why the Air Force had no choice but to allow atheist airmen to opt out of saying those words?

One final thing. If you are like me, you see that it is a piece of delicious irony that the person whom Pat Robertson bases his whole life around is just “one little Jewish radical” – an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth by the name of Yehoshua ben Yosef (Jesus, son of Joseph).


Alba gu bràth


Since this is an election year – albeit, the mid-term elections in the United States – I thought of another election that is taking place today, of which you may or may not be aware.

The voting will take place in a country that is about the size of South Carolina, with a population of roughly 5.3 million people. The country is Scotland and today, September 18, 2014, Scots will go to the polls to vote on the future of their country.

It is a vote that could end Scotland’s 307-year union with England and Wales as Great Britain – and see Scotland launch into the world as an independent nation.

Yes, Scotland.

Scotland – the land of pipers piping Scotland the Brave; the land of Saint Andrew, its patron saint;

Scotland – the home of such heroic figures as Macbeth, William Wallace, Robert, the Bruce, “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” Black Angus, Flora Macdonald, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Rob Roy;

Scotland – the birthplace of Auld Lang Syne, written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It is a song about the importance of remembering old friendships: “And there’s a hand my trusty friend! /And give me a hand o’ thine! / And we’ll take a right good-will draught, / For auld lang syne.” It might seem silly to reduce a decision about the future of a nation to a few lines of a sentimental song sung drunkenly and mostly off-key at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but friendship is a precious thing;

Scotland – the land that has given us the Scottish geniuses of Adam Smith, David Hume, James Watt, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Braid, Kenneth Graham, Sir Walter Scott, Muriel Spark, Thomas Carlyle, Alexander Fleming, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Alexander Graham Bell;

Scotland – the place that produced the invention of classical economics, a proud tradition of banking, color photography, the flushing toilet, golf, hypnotism, penicillin and the television set;

Scotland – the land of colorful tartans, of a dram of Highland Dew (“Whisky,” the preferred spelling by the Scots), of skirling bagpipes, of the Edinburgh Tattoo, of the heather on the hill, and of a reputation for being thrifty;

Scotland – the home of both “Nessie,” who resides in Lock Ness and of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, one of the oldest and most prestigious golf clubs in the world and regarded as the worldwide “Home of Golf.”

Scotland – the inspiration for the Lerner and Loewe 1950’s Broadway and movie musical, Brigadoon, about the fog-borne village that appears only once every 100 years and any visitor not wishing to stay for a few centuries of sleep must find true love therein. The story worked its magic on screen for Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, playing lovers who finally were carried away in the legend.

Scotland – the location of Balmoral Castle, the summer retreat of Queen Elizabeth II, where she intends to spend the scheduled day of voting. Now there is a vote of confidence in her subjects! The Queen, who is half-Scottish herself (her mother was a Scot) and who remains above the political fray as a constitutional monarch, speaking after the Sunday morning service at Crathie Kirk, told a well-wisher: “Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future.” (Read vote “No”);

Scotland – the place of breathtaking beauty and of the coarsest of histories; a land where the oppressions and wild victories of a rich but bloody past seem burned into its moors and mountains and bonnie banks and in the blood of its people.

Scotland – where emotions naturally run high on both sides of the independence debate.

On September 18 – today – Scots go to the polls to vote on the future of their country. When campaigning began, the idea of independence seemed a far-fetched prospect. But the most recent polls suggest that what many Britons considered unthinkable could happen – and the United Kingdom as we know it could be torn apart forever.

Why is this happening now?

Scotland has long had a testy relationship with England, its neighbor to the South. The Act of Union in 1707 joined the kingdom of Scotland with England and Wales, but many Scots were unhappy at being yoked to their longtime rival south of the border.

Since 1999, Scotland has had a devolved government, meaning many, but not all, decisions are made at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. In May 2011, the nationalist Scottish National Party, which had campaigned on a promise to hold an independence referendum, surprised many by winning an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament.

In October 2012, the United Kingdom and Scottish governments agreed that the referendum would be held, and the question to be put to voters was agreed on early last year.

One of the driving forces for the vote was the widening gulf between the policies pursued by the coalition government in Westminster, led by the Conservative Party under Prime Minister David Cameron since 2010, and what the Scottish people want. Many Scots are strongly opposed to the current Westminster government’s attempts to reform – or in their eyes dismantle – the welfare state.

As the empire vanished and industry declined, so the economic outlook of Scotland and England began to diverge. A turning point in the relationship was the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 – a right-wing leader who may have helped raise living standards in Scotland, but whose faith in free markets became increasingly at odds with the Scottish preference for a well-financed public sector.

Scotland could have rallied to the left-wing Labor Party, but Labor, too, moved drastically to the right and left many of its working-class constituents behind.

Many Scots turned toward independence as an alternative way of ordering their affairs (while many in England drifted toward the conservative United Kingdom Independence Party). Hence, much of the campaign for independence has centered not around nationalist themes, but around economic ones instead.

Supporters of independence imagine that if freed from the more right-wing English, they would be able to spend more and invest in public services. In fact, the opposite is true. Such is the likely size of an independent Scotland’s debt, and so uncertain is the future of its currency, that it would almost certainly have to raise taxes through the roof in order to keep government services at the same level – or else cut government services, not something many people would want.

Why is this vote significant to the rest of the world? As I see it, there are five major items that make this vote significant.

First, is the large question mark over Scotland’s financial future. Already, this uncertainty is having an impact on international business. Some voices in banking and insurance express worry that the breakup of the United Kingdom could undermine London’s standing as an international financial capital.

The British Pound hit a 10-month low against the United States Dollar recently as opinion polls swung in favor of voters who want to break away from the United Kingdom. Uncertainty over which currency an independent Scotland will use, and the impact of “a messy divorce” on the United Kingdom economy, is largely to blame. Independence campaigners want to continue to use the British Pound in a currency union with England, but United Kingdom lawmakers say they are not ready to share. And even if they were, the Bank of England would likely insist on tough budget rules that could mean painful austerity for Scotland. Another option would be to create a new, untested currency. The Euro, if an option at all, would be years away. Scotland’s massive financial industry seems ready to head for the hills if voters choose independence. The biggest names in banking and insurance, including the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), say they would move headquarters and parts of their businesses to England if Scottish voters back a split. The financial sector employs 100,000 people in Scotland and generates roughly $11 billion for the economy each year, so this raises concerns about future job losses and lower tax revenues for an independent nation.

Second, is how the United Kingdom’s defense capability would be affected. The Scottish government says it wants to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland within four years of gaining independence – namely, the 58 United States Trident II D-5 missiles leased from Washington by the British government that are based near Glasgow at Faslane Naval Base on the River Clyde. The Scottish government says, “It is our firm position that an independent Scotland should not host nuclear weapons and we would only join NATO on that basis.” That position could force London to relocate the weapons to alternative bases in England or return the weapons to the United States, costing billions of dollars and leaving NATO without a European nuclear deterrent precisely at a time of heightened security concern.

Third, is the fact that if Scotland votes for independence, it would have to renegotiate its entry to both NATO and the European Union. Independence campaigners want Scotland to remain in the European Union, but an independent Scotland would most likely be treated as a new state and therefore would have to apply for membership. That process could take years and all twenty-eight members would have to approve the application – something some may be reluctant to do for fear of encouraging their own separatist movements. For instance, the debate is being closely watched by independence movements in Spain’s Catalonia province, Canada’s Quebec province and France’s Mediterranean island of Corsica.

Fourth, is the decision of the United Kingdom’s government to honor all its debts if there is a split. This decision was an early move to reassure markets. However, under this scenario, an independent Scotland would owe Britain as much as £130 billion – or roughly 10% of total United Kingdom public debt. Supporters of independence say they are ready to pay, and are confident Scotland could manage its debts with greater ease once independence is established. However, Standard & Poor’s cautions that Scotland’s economy – which would be similar in size to Portugal – would be less resilient to shocks because of its greater dependence on volatile earnings from the oil and gas industry.

Fifth, is the reality that the United Kingdom is the largest oil producer in the European Union and about 90% of its oil comes from areas that are likely to be claimed by an independent Scotland. The United Kingdom is also likely to want a share of current production and reserves, but most analysts expect an agreement could be reached on divvying up the assets. There are deeper divisions, however, over how much the remaining oil is worth – a calculation of much greater significance to the future of the Scottish economy. Independence campaigners estimate Scotland’s remaining oil is worth about £1.5 trillion. The United Kingdom government says it is less than one-tenth of that figure.

Today’s vote presents these challenging factors for a tough people in a harsh land. The vote is too close to call, so which way will it go?

I must admit to feeling conflicted about the whole thing. The pipes and massed bands of the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo will ever stir my blood with a rousing Scotland, the Brave, and Over the Sea to Skye. A tear will always come to my eye when I hear Auld Lang Syne. As an American, I feel that people ought to have a right of self-determination, but in this particular case, I am not quite certain of the logic for independence, though I can well understand the emotion. One thing is certain, however. No matter what happens, Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom will change forever.

In the 1995 film, Braveheart, Scottish patriot and national hero William Wallace (portrayed by Mel Gibson) shouts Alba gu bràth, usually translated “Scotland Forever!” as he gallops across the front of his assembled Scottish troops just prior to the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Scotland Forever! Yes. But my hope is that after today’s vote, Britain’s Union Jack will continue to carry Scotland’s Saint Andrew’s Cross countercharged with the crosses of Saint Patrick and Saint George.

It Always Happens on the Jericho Road

good sam2 Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. – Leo Buscaglia

I think that you will agree that the following is almost unbelievable, but believe me, it is true. Listen. In 1895, there were only two cars in the whole state of Ohio. That, in itself, is not that surprising, since the automobile was still a relatively new invention and extremely expensive to manufacture. What is surprising is that those two automobiles somehow ended up in a collision with each other! Imagine! An entire state – only two cars – and somehow they managed to run into each other! It seems that dangerous roads are not anything new.

Take, for example, the Jericho Road. That seventeen mile stretch of road that links Jerusalem to Jericho was at one time known to be one of the most dangerous of roads. It was one of the roughest, the rockiest, and the most robber-infested roads in the world. It was a notoriously dark and forbidding seventeen miles, this Jericho Road – this “bloody way” as it was known. Thieves crouched in crevices in the rocks. Travelers were beaten and robbed. This was not a road to be traveled either alone or at night. Those who did so knew that they were taking a huge risk. In our modern experience, the Jericho Road would be much like a dark and threatening alley in the wrong side of town, on the wrong side of the tracks.  We all know roads like the Jericho Road, do we not?

On one level at least, the Jericho Road is a metaphor, a symbol of the suffering and the violence and the oppression in the world.

As a metaphor, the Jericho Road is that room in the nursing home where Aunt Eleanor lives out her life as she struggles with her incurable, degenerative and terminal Alzheimer’s disease.

As a metaphor, the Jericho Road is the bridge, or the doorway, or the alley, or the box where the more than 154,000 veterans must sleep tonight and on any given night because they have no home.

As a metaphor, the Jericho Road is the border conflict between Honduras and El Salvador, or between Israel and Palestine, or between North and South Korea, conflicts in which thousands upon thousands of people have been killed. It is also the border clashes between Mexico and the United States, clashes in which immigration enforcement threatens to further divide us as a nation.

You see, the Jericho Road is any place where there is violence. It is any place where there is oppression. It is any place where there is suffering. It is any place where people are robbed – robbed of their dignity; robbed of their love; robbed of their food, shelter and clothing; robbed of their value as human beings; and robbed of their life itself.

It is an uncomfortable truth that the Jericho Road is always with us because anger, poverty, hopelessness, ancient hatreds, oppression, violence, and death are always with us and they raise their ugly heads on the Jericho Road. In a 1967 speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke these challenging and moving words: “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructure.”  

Now the story of the Jericho Road is one of the most memorable narratives in all of literature. Of course, we do not know this recognizable tale as the story of the Jericho Road, but more familiarly as the Parable of the Good Samaritan – a story that asks the timeless question: Who is my neighbor?

There once was a man who was walking down a road – the Jericho Road. . .

This classic account begins with its ageless and enduring truths about how we ought to live our lives. The story of the Jericho Road calls us to be caring, compassionate human beings in the face of need on any of life’s Jericho roads.

Recently, I read of a priest who was riding a subway train one wintry day in Chicago. On this particular day, he noticed that an old woman shuffled into the train wearing only ragged clothes to protect her from the bitter and blustery Chicago winter wind. Her white, cracked, and bony hands clutched a worn shawl that she tightly wrapped around her. The priest watched her with both wonder and with pity.  At the next stop, an energetic young man strode confidently onto the subway train. His warm, high-fashion clothes offered a stark contrast to the old woman from the last stop. As he made his way to his seat, his eyes lingered for just a brief moment on the old woman. Three stops later, as the train slowed, he glided by her to the door and departed the train. On the woman’s lap lay his brown leather gloves. The priest observed, “I don’t know if he was a Christian or not. But I do know this: He saw her need and responded with compassion – while I just sat there. It never occurred to me to give her my gloves. That young man showed compassion in a way I’ll never forget”

We cannot buy compassion like that. It is a capacity that one either has or does not have. The story of the Jericho Road calls us to be caring, compassionate human beings in the face of need. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote these words: “Love a neighbor. Be a neighbor, and let us not complicate things by arguing about the specifics. You know what it means to do love because some time or another you have been on the receiving end of it, but remember that knowing the right answers does not change a thing. If you want the world to look different next time you go outside, do some love.”

The story of the Jericho Road is one that appeals to our potential capacity to be compassionate human beings and to take the time to heed with understanding and concern another person’s need as they are hurting on any of life’s Jericho roads.

There once was a man who was walking down a road – the Jericho Road. . .

So begins this timeless story. There are many ways of understanding this ageless tale. I have given you but one way in this blog today.  Just as the Samaritan on the Jericho Road demonstrated love and compassion toward a man who was beaten and left for dead, so we should show similar concern and kindness toward other people, even those whom we consider unlovable. Such deeds should be in our DNA. When we have truly learned the lessons of the story of the Jericho Road, then the real results will happen each and every day of our own lives as we attempt to “go and do likewise” wherever we may be, on whatever “Jericho Road” we may find ourselves. For, you know, it always happens on the Jericho Road.

Making A Difference


“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” – Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Jake worked behind the counter in a little country store. If the truth be known, Jake did not do much work. If he were asked a question, he seldom knew the answer. Then one day a customer stopped to buy something and noticed that Jake was nowhere to be seen. He mentioned this observation to the owner, who said that Jake had retired. The customer asked, “What are you doing to fill the vacancy?” The owner answered, “Jake didn’t leave no vacancy.” Though the answer is poor English grammar, it is, nevertheless, a wonderful line – “Jake didn’t leave no vacancy.”

A person about whom it would never be said, “he didn’t leave no vacancy” was Joseph Kramer.

Let me tell you about Joe Kramer.

It was a perfect morning for the seventeen kids from a day-care center to play on the grass in Tompkins Square Park, in Manhattan’s lower East Side. Suddenly, Felipe, a youngster not quite five years old suddenly stood up. “I got pinched,” he disclosed to the supervisor of the group. As he said this, he bravely blinked back his tears. He showed the supervisor his palm. There was a trickle of blood that was smeared across a small puncture wound.

“What pinched you, Felipe?” the supervisor asked. Felipe brought his other hand from behind his back. In that hand, he was holding a syringe and a hypodermic needle. There was a dark spot on the broken tip of the needle – caked blood. No one had to explain the danger to this supervisor who had lived all her life on these streets.

She called out to the rest of the children, “Did any of you find one of these?” Two more children held up the syringes they had found that morning in the park. The supervisor rushed to a phone to call her bosses in the day-care center. They confirmed her instant reaction: get Felipe to Kramer – and fast!

Who was Kramer anyway? Not Cosmo Kramer, Jerry Seinfeld’s eccentric neighbor? God, I hope not!

No, the Kramer in this case was Joseph I. Kramer, M.D. and he was Felipe’s doctor. In fact, he was also physician to hundreds of others who live in this area: to infants and grandmothers, to addicts and prostitutes, to priests and numbers bankers – all sorts and conditions of people. He was a pediatrician. He had been part of a successful practice in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, but for twenty-seven years,  Joe Kramer practiced alone on Avenue D at 7th Street, probably the only solo practitioner in one of the most ravaged and deadly neighborhoods in New York City.

Kramer devoted his life to responding to the human needs of the people in his neighborhood. The head of a medical foundation once said that Kramer personified “what medicine is supposed to be about.”

Every weekday morning, Joe Kramer drove his old battered station-wagon from his home on a quiet, shady street in affluent Bergen County, New Jersey, to his cramped street-level office on Avenue D at 7th Street in Manhattan. Here, he offered himself as a medical practitioner, a healer, and a therapist to a community of some 20,000 people, mostly Hispanic and African-American. On most days, forty or more patients showed up at his clinic, accompanied by three or four relatives. The examining rooms were just big enough to accommodate an anxious parent, a tearful child, and a stooping six-foot, five-inch doctor.

A half an hour after Felipe found the hypodermic needle in Tompkins Square Park, Kramer was swabbing antiseptic on the child’s palm. He knew that this was a high-risk situation. An infection in the palm could quickly spread to Felipe’s arm. Kramer quickly explained this to Felipe’s father, who was about to take his son to the hospital.

An hour later the report came back. There was not enough blood to determine whether the needle was infectious. As a precaution, Felipe was given penicillin and a shot for hepatitis. The outlook was good for Felipe. He would not be infected.

The good news should have left Joe Kramer pleased. He had helped another child survive childhood on the lower East Side of New York. But for him it was not a time for a victory lap. He was a realist and was quoted as saying at the time: “It’s such a crapshoot. If Felipe escapes the needle today, José will die from it tomorrow. Why should a five-year-old kid who never hurt anybody have to suffer from some junkie’s needle? I do this every day, but, jeez, I don’t know what the f_ _ _ difference I make.”

What motivated Joseph Kramer to open his clinic in the first place? Perhaps he did it because he wanted to make his life count for something. Most certainly, he was not a screwball. Eccentric, perhaps! Odd, certainly! Would that all of us were as “odd” as Joe Kramer!

Kramer once said, “I know I don’t have to come down here if I don’t want to, but I feel that the people are going to be here waiting for me, and it’s like standing up a date. I just don’t want to stand up the people down here. I actually watch children grow up here. I get to know families, their problems. I’m really just a country doctor in New York City.”

In 1996, after over a quarter of a century, Joe Kramer finally quit his practice. It was not the forty patients a day. It was not the rise of AIDS, the spread of tuberculosis, or the resurgence of measles. Neither was it his seventy-one years, nor was it the money.

It was the paperwork. Joe Kramer burned out on paperwork.

“I’m crapped out,” he said of his decision to quit his practice. “Patient Encounter Forms,” he continued, lifting a box. “I’m going to send them back to the president of the insurance company with a note: ‘I don’t encounter patients. I treat them.’ Those morons tried to tie me up with their red tape. They buried me with their forms.”

The “they” in that statement were the bureaucrats who had taken over the economics of health care. They were the voices on the line, the signatures on the letters, the ones who determined – as much as the doctor – who was treated and how. And it became too much for Joe Kramer. So he hung up his stethoscope and retired. Now, he says, he wants to practice for a while on an Indian reservation out West where he will not have to worry about office management, and to write about the troubles he has seen.

We can learn an important lesson from Joseph Kramer and it is this: If we live our lives focused only on our personal needs, we will accomplish very little. We will live to work – and work to eat – and eat to live – and that is about it. At some point, the cycle will be broken by our death and there will be little to grieve. Joseph Kramer wanted his life to make a difference in the lives of the people to whom he tended in his clinic. He may have had self-doubts about that, but little Felipe would disagree, as would countless others whom he looked after. As Winston Churchill once remarked: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Joseph I. Kramer, M.D.  gave much and made a difference.