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Interview with: Dr. Robert Kahn
Archive Number: OH 086
RK = Dr. Robert Kahn
PI = David, primary male interviewer
SI = Secondary male interviewer
TI= Third male interviewer
FS = Female speaker
PI: 00:05 The Hebrew Union College, where you received your theological training, is noted as a center of Reform Judaism. What originally attracted you to that branch of the Jewish faith?
RK: Well, I was raised in a Reform synagogue. I would never have thought of any other. In fact, I had very little knowledge when I was in childhood of there being much besides Reform Judaism for modern Jews. Orthodoxy was my grandmother’s religion; Reform was my parents’ and my own.
PI: When did you decide that you wanted to become a rabbi?
RK: Well, it began with a somewhat idle comment—maybe not so idle—but my aunt, on the way home from confirmation, which takes place at 15, and her ecstatic comment—I was always her favorite nephew—was, “Oh, Bobby, you oughta be a rabbi. You looked so beautiful up there.” And it was the first time I ever thought about it. We’d planned on a medical career and had thought of the University of Iowa, which was a Double-A medical school, and I had cousins in the family who had gone there with—you know—that was the kind of future. An awful lot of Jewish mothers in those days spoke of “my son, the doctor,” you remember. And this got in my mind and I—it never got out of it again. It just took hold of me, and I went on and started studying Hebrew—I hadn’t had any before—and prepared myself to go into college.
PI: What brought you to Houston?
RK: An opening. When I graduated, there was an assistantship available in Houston which—for which I thought I was qualified, and I applied and was interviewed and employed.
PI: This was not within—(speaking simultaneously)
RK: No, we don’t have any kind of hierarchical arrangement in the synagogue. It’s contractual, really—like most Baptists are Congregationalists.
PI: This was at the Temple Beth Israel?
PI: Then—after you served there for a while—I believe you became a chaplain in the Pacific.
RK: That’s correct.
PI: How did that influence your religious thinking?
RK: You know—(speaking simultaneously) 02:10
RK: What’s that?
PI: Or did it?
RK: It did. I would say it strengthened certain tendencies in me. Number one: It made me much more conscious of the fact that I was a rabbi—the noun—first, and Reform—the adjective—second. I was in the army to serve all of the men of Jewish faith and to give them as warm and rich an experience of Judaism as I could. Well—this meant that I would wear a hat whenever I worshipped, although I never had before. This meant that I used a more conservative style of prayer. It meant that I became conscious of the fact that—you know—there were no rich and there were no poor; there were no board members and there were no ordinary members; and there were no Reform, no more Conservative, no Orthodox: One uniform, one army, and one faith, really. And the same thing happened with regard to my deep feeling for the brotherhood of faiths. I had the experience, for example, on one ship leaving the harbor at which I was stationed, of a captain or a major—I’ve forgotten which—thank you—
FS: Want some iced tea?
RK: All right. He came to my tent—I was right near the landing—landing dock. “Chaplain, I’d like to have a minister and a priest and a rabbi come out on the boat this afternoon—we’re going off to combat.” And Sunday was no day to find these men. They—all of them had 10, 12, 15 services and they move from strong point to strong point, particularly on a battlefront. You know—you couldn’t bring them to a chapel so you go out where the men are—and I was the only chaplain available. So I proceeded to take rosaries that had been given to me by the priest—and I made sure they were blessed—and a series of crosses and prayer books, and some Jewish prayer books; and I went out to the ship and I held a series of services. First, a rosary service for the Roman Catholics—I—I didn’t do it, but I presided over it, so to speak—and then a service and sermon for the Protestants, and then a service for the Jews, and most of the people stayed through all three. So you had the feeling of being a minister—a man of God—for all of the faiths. And then—because my own—what do you call it—? battalion—6th Medical Battalion—had five hundred and some soldiers of whom four were Jewish—see, I had to be attached some place, and so they attached me there. Now—see, my mother wanted me to be a doctor. She got her wish! And I found there, in a very close counseling situation—all I did for them, religiously was to set up services. In other words, I’d get a minister and a priest to come on Sunday morning, and I’d sit at the chaplain’s tent and see that the books were distributed, and so forth. I was in charge. But I got the sense in my counseling relationships—and I had a library, and issued books, and I went around and visited at—in the company areas—a sense of the very deep respect for freedom and for liberty and for differences in the American—in the American heart. These were boys who’d never seen a Jew, many of them, before. They weren’t sure—they weren’t sure that I was Jewish because I look like a black Swede to some and like a black Irishman to others—like a bru—meaning brunette. It was a wonderful feeling to have the kind of camaraderie that I felt and the kind of feeling that, no matter what happened, America would be free, that the seeds of communism and fascism were just totally absent. And at that time—you know—we were worried about those things.
PI: Your election as head of the newly formed Temple Emmanuel in 1944, I suppose, was unusual in so far as it took place in absentia. Would you tell us a little bit about how that came about? 06:20
RK: There had been a doctrinal dispute in the temple that I served in—Temple Beth Israel—over the subject of: “Could you be a good Reform Jew and a good Zionist?” and the Temple decided that you couldn’t be a good Jew and a good Zionist. I thought I was a good Jew. I knew I was a good Zionist. I was in an untenable position and I had to resign. I mean—it was either then or later, so I resigned while I was overseas. Meanwhile, pretty well unknown to me—I mean there was no planning of this—unknown to me, a group of members of the congregation which had taken this stand formed themselves into a new congregation with freedom of thought. You could be a Zionist or a non-Zionist. It wasn’t—you didn’t have to become a Zionist to be a good Reform Jew, but it was open to non-Zionists and Zionists alike—and having formed themselves, they cabled me to become their rabbi and I said yes.
PI: Now—one of the first things you did, of course, was to build a synagogue. Why did you settle on Sunset and Rice as the location? Or did you have a hand in that? 07:32
RK: I had no hand in that. That was done by some very previsioned businessmen in my congregation. This property was for sale. The Jewish community, then, was almost all on the east side of Main Street. Now, it’s almost all on the west side of Main Street. This was a central location and separate from changing neighborhoods—if you know—this is all safely restricted for dwellings and dwellings only on the west. There’s a church across the street, Rice University with an intellectual atmosphere across the street, a medical center beginning to grow, and our feeling wasn’t— And—by the way, we have reviewed our location. About five years ago we went into a very thorough study: “Do we want to become a neighborhood synagogue or do we want to remain an urban synagogue?” and we decided to remain an urban synagogue with both the disadvantages—distance, travel—and the advantages that we would get.
PI: You anticipated one of my questions and that is how Jews in Houston cluster geographically if, indeed, they do. Is there any—?
RK: Oh, yes. Not that there’s a ghetto because there are non-Jews living in any Jewish neighborhood—probably, in many cases, more non-Jews than Jews. But there’s a tendency to cluster. Take Bellaire High School, for example. I remember when I came here San Jacinto High School had a large Jewish population and people used to say, “Well—there must be half, three-quarters of the kids are Jewish.” But I once counted the numbers of the kids in the graduation class and there was about 22 percent. But that was the Jewish high school! Bellaire has the reputation of being a Jewish high school. Well—what it—that—means is that a lot of the Jewish kids—and a good proportion of the student body is Jewish, but 20 percent would be a high number—that the cluster is mostly in the southwest: zones 25 and 35 and the like. And another cluster is in the memorial area: 24 is—mostly 24—and others west of there. That’s a minor cluster. You see—the Jewish Community Center is really, geographically, just about central to the Jewish community. And that’s out on—just west of Chimney Rock—on South Braeswood.
PI: Concerning whether you want a synagogue to be an urban one or a suburban one. Would this influence the policies of the church in any way?
RK: 10:12 Only in terms of program. We haven’t done as much as I’d like to do because we haven’t been able to see clearly what and how to do it. But I would like to orient at least part of our program toward intellectual comradeship with the campus and a service comradeship with the medical center. We really haven’t known how even to start exploring this. I talked to one of the deans—or chancellor—several years ago about the possibility of adjoined lecture series. We’ve got an auditorium that will hold a thousand people, and if we could get a lecture series going, the students would pay $1 for the whole series and the other people would pay $5 or $10 so that they would support it and get some very fine speakers. I’ve always thought of that as a joint project. We have had one or two projects where we have helped underwrite and shared in programming. There was an organist here from Washington, D.C., and then we’ve cooperated in the Department of Religion largely in lecture series.
PI: Well—whatever the classification is of Temple Emanuel, it’s grown remarkably and I wanted to ask you: to what do you attribute this growth from its earliest days?
RK: Well, the city has grown so that there are more—all the congregations are larger. I think the building is attractive, our style of worship is quite warm, and I think that’s been very attractive. We have a congregation that’s totally democratic, which I think is in its favor because they welcome new people. People who’ve joined the congregation and been members for two years and showed the kind of leadership that seems promising are sometimes elected to our various governing bodies and the auxiliaries or in the Board of Trustees. We have a nominating committee bring in a report every year, and almost every year there are nominations from the floor; and very frequently those nominations from the floor will carry the elections. Now—of course—you know—this provides hurt feelings and things like that but, the fact is, it’s an open—it’s an open society. We’ve converted two or three blacks. They attend—they don’t feel ill at ease. Two converts are now among the main leadership of our youth group—young singles group. There’s just a kind of openness and warmth about our congregation that I think is attractive to people. Now I’ll—I¬ have to say, even modestly, I’ve played little part in that but—
PI: I think that’s what I was driving at. You say that you have a kind of warm style. Are synagogues known by the style of the rabbi?
RK: Well—they’re not known; they’re recognized. You feel it. You feel it. I think a rabbi helps set the tone, but a congregation helps make the rabbi too. You know, there’s a reciprocal relationship—it’s very subtle—very subtle. I don’t know what I would have turned out like in another situation. But I’m very conscious of the effect of this congregation on me. 13:47
PI: Have you ever attempted any sort of a background survey of your congregation—`any kind of a formal inquiry into the background of the people who worship here?
RK: You mean a sociological type?
RK: Not really. I— When we give out questionnaires—we do give them out—we say, “What would you be interested in? or what committee would you like to join?” We just did that recently. We’re going to do—we’re doing a population survey again this fall. The Jewish Community Center is doing a sampling of the total community, if you’re interested in seeing something of that sort. But they are doing a study and some in-depth interviews and questionnaires of around 500 families, which is a pretty good sampling.
PI: I ask that because I know that often it’s possible to make an educated guess about a Protestant’s status on the basis of the church he or she attends. And I was wondering if this is also true of the Jewish community in Houston, given the three traditional divisions.
RK: Well, there are some—probably some—bell-shaped curves that could be developed. I would think—just offhand—that the nearer to Europe or the foreign background, the closer to Orthodoxy, and the more generations of American life, the more Reformed. I mean, that’s a very rough thing, but I think I could sustain that to you. It just—it’s logical and psychological, and it tends to be. On the other hand, our congregation—and I haven’t studied the others—our congregation is made up of people from almost every economic class. We have members who are—well—laboring people, tradesman. You know—we have a carpet layer. We had a trained nurse. We have, you might say, salesmen on the floor of department stores. We also have buyers. We’re a little heavy in the intellectual pursuits: medicine, law, the teaching—you know—university and public school teaching professions. Engineering is pretty strong in our congregation. I’m not sure about elsewhere. You see—I don’t know, but we have a pretty strong contingency of engineers. But, even in terms of economic classes, it runs pretty wide. Social classes—we have members of the country club and we have members of B’nai Brith—you know.
PI: It’s a mixture.
RK: It’s a mixture. It’s pretty wide—a pretty wide spectrum. Plus, one of the things that makes it nice, too, is that there is a democracy, and you don’t have a little clique that’s running the place.
PI: If I might ask another sort of mundane sociological question, which of the three groups—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—has the most followers in Houston?
RK: Reform in Houston.
PI: Is that—? That’s not typical of the nation, is it?
RK: No—I would think Conservative claims the largest number of affiliated families. They claim this—I haven’t seen the statistics. Then Orthodoxy has a small number of affiliated, but a large group of — If you’re asking somebody, “What is your faith?” they’ll say, “I’m Orthodox.” In other words, “I married Orthodox,” or “I worship Orthodox,” or “I want to be buried Orthodox,”—you see—rather than being affiliated. It’s very difficult to classify here. Affiliation is really about the only way you can do it, in which case, the—I think—the Conservative movement claim to be the largest and there’s no reason for them to lie; and if it were a lie somebody would nail ’em, so I gonna just accept it.
PI: What I infer from that—that there aren’t many members of the Jewish community in Houston who are of sort of immediate Eastern European origin—that we have many second and third generation Jews here in Houston.
RK: Yes—you can say that.
PI: Was there any particular wave of Jewish migration to Houston? This might go back beyond your personal knowledge, but has it been a wave phenomenon? Or was it a steady trickle of people into the community?
RK: There was—there was a chutzpah soon removed from the Eastern Seaboard, that it just was a matter of chance if somebody came to Houston, then their relatives came and followed them. So in—in Des Moines, Iowa, where I was born and raised, a great many Jews from 18:26 Poznan came because one Jew from Poznan came and he made good and he sent for all his relatives—tickets—and his cousins and his uncles. So you have quite a group of Poznan Jews in Des Moines. So that’s accidental. The only real wave was the product of what was called the Galveston Movement. Along in the early 1900’s one of the Schiffs, very prominent in Jewish social work in New York and a great giver, decided that what was happening was that Europeans were coming and clinging to the Eastern Seaboard and living in squalor and in ghettos and providing, as all foreign groups have provided, a number of gangsters and delinquencies. And he thought it would be very healthy if more of them could land at other areas of the country and populate them and become better assimilated and have a better chance to make a living, and so forth. And so, from about 1900 and—I’ve forgotten—1901, 1902, 1903, 1904—there was a Galveston Movement that brought Jews through Galveston. Now, some of them stayed there. Many of them stayed here. Some went out to join their relatives in Philadelphia and New York, of course, and many of the small towns of Texas have people who settled there as a result of the Galveston Movement. So that was a wave, and that was Eastern European. 19:51
PI: Approximately how many Jews are there in Houston today?
RK: Oh— (speaking simultaneously)
PI: And I know this is a—
RK: 20,000 to 22,000.
PI: —a hard question because we have to—
RK: Yeah—20,000 to 22,000. It’s just a guess.
PI: —differentiate between those, I suppose, actively involved in Jewish institutional life and those who are nominally Jewish.
RK: Well, I don’t think I’m naming all of them. That is—we have a community file because we do our charities in common. We don’t have each church do its own missionary movement and—you know—you multiply the number of cards by 2.9 or 3.1—whatever it is—and you come up with a figure. Now if there’s no card there for a person, either he hasn’t registered yet with any Jewish organization of any sort—because they get the membership lists—or else he really doesn’t want to be Jewish anymore. In other words, he’s hidin’ out. So—I don’t think there are many of those. I really don’t. I think that—that we have affiliation rates here of about 80 percent, and I would think that the20, 000, 22,000 would be the number.
PI: You once remarked, in 1966, that Judaism in this country is threatened by the reduction of Jewishness to identity, rather than destiny. What did you mean by that?
RK: Did I say that?
PI: Yes—in a B’nai B’rith speech in San Francisco.
SI: For heaven sakes. It’s come back to haunt you after all—
RK: Which—I like it! I like it. I do. Which—that’s why I—I am sure I must’ve cribbed it. Hey—! Wipe that out. (laughs) Well, some of our best ideas—you know—come to us without really knowing where they come from.
PI: Israel (??) 21:32
RK: Yes. I—I think that—that if Judai—Jewishness is reduced to simply the feeling that I’m a member of an ethnic group with no supportive ideology, with no reason to remain a distinct ethnic group—if the ethnic group has no purpose—then I think it’s gonna fade, just as all other ethnic groups in America have faded. Very few of them have retained any identity because —the—no—what—what is it about being a Polish American? You know—sooner or later you become an American and you marry Italian, or Irish, or some other and it becomes “just American.” The Jew happens to combine in his identity, usually, the—the factor of birth and the factor of religion. And those two factors—if you separate them out—I think that the—they’re both gonna disappear. So destiny is a way of speaking of the Jewish sense of purpose: service to mankind, bring on the messianic age, and so forth.
SI: How does the Reform church feel about a Jew buryin’ a non-Jew?
SI: It’s just since we’re—
RK: —it’s very diffi—it would be very difficult to say, “What does the Reform church believe?” The Reform rabbis have said, specifically, mixed marriage—marriage without conversion to the Jewish faith—is contrary to Jewish tradition and we urge our members not to officiate at such marriages. 23:04 Now—that’s a majority view. There is a minority—and a pretty good size minority—who feel that it’s better to perform such—officiate at such marriages in the hopes of holding them within the group and having their children be raises as Jews. That’s—that’s the theory on their part. And I can’t—I—is it—there is a matter of judgment, isn’t it? You simply say this, and I say the other—and I think I’m right, and they think they’re right. But—you know—mixed marriage of any sort is pretty risky. I remember reading a study in The Christian Century 20 years ago, I think, about—in marriages between Lutherans and Baptists, between Catholics and Protestants—and almost all of them, while the couples themselves might be able to relate well—because they only interviewed extant marriages—the children had great problems of identity and of—of parental strain. One youngster said, “It’s good all year until Easter, and then we don’t know whether to go with Dad or with Mother.” I never thought of it before—it’s a—but the most beautiful day in the year and suddenly—you know—you have to make a choice between your parents. You know—there’s nothing worse than a grandmother saying, “Who do you like best—me or Grandpa?” You know—that’s a terrible thing to do to a child, but this is what you do when you have a mixed marriage—without the decision to make one—one church or one synagogue your spiritual home. So that—I—I think represents a—the large majority—you know—60, 70, 80 percent of the reformed rabbinate and, I think, the layman too, in feeling that it’s—it’s better not to have mixed marriages. Now—when kids fall in love we urge conversion and if they convert, of course, then they are establishing a non-mixed marriage—they’re establishing a Jewish marriage.
SI: At the beginning of the interview, David asked you if the—how did you happen—or—to—to come upon the Reform synagogue—Reform Judaism—and you said you felt—I’m not—I can’t quote you precisely, but you said it was the only faith for moderate Jews?
SI: This is—what do you mean by that, precisely? Are you sayin’ that the Orthodox church or the Conservative church—synagogue—has—is not—cannot survive in the modern world without— 25:36
RK: Wouldn’t say cannot—
SI: Well—without— (speaking simultaneously)
RK: —without taking something away from the—
RK: The essence of the Western world is—is its openness. Democracy implies freedom—freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom from authority—except that which is democratically agreed upon. The Orthodox faith, as a contrast, is based on the authority of the tradition—the Bible as interpreted by the Talmud and by the—not a hierarchical, but certainly a scholarly rabbinate and you can’t—you can’t deviate from it. It’s a set way of life. If you don’t live it, then you—you—you know—if you—and you say you’re Orthodox, you’re really not—you’re Orthodox-style but you’re—you’re not accepting the authority of the Orthodox way, which is quite authoritative. As I see it, democracy permits a Jew to treat his past and his tradition on a choosing basis rather than on a force—a forced basis. That is—you must do this, you must do that, you must do the other. The Reform Jew has the privilege of saying, “This—this appeals to me. This custom has meaning for me. This rite—this ritual—will inspire me. But on the other hand, that seems of no importance. It seems unnecessary. It seems—somehow out of touch and irrelevant and I choose not to do this. I choose to do this.” Now—that, I think, is far more—far more adaptive to life in a democracy and a free—free society than the other.
SI: It provides flexibility for the leader—
RK: That’s exactly right, and it permits for the development of new ideas. Now—Reform Judaism today is adopting more of the traditions—it dropped some, but it is now picking up again. It’s doing it under a free faith—it’s improving our faith’s experience. We finally got so rationalized that you had a kind of a cold, intellectual religion, and we need more warmth and emotion. So we are seeking, in our own tradition, the recovery of some of that warmth and emotion—without saying, (taps three times) “You just have to.” So—you come into my synagogue, you’ll see three people wearing a hat because this, to them, has some kind of meaning and I—I don’t ask them what it means—I assume that it has meaning or they wouldn’t do it. We’ll have more Hebrew in our services because it has a certain authentic relationship to the past. We’ll urge—teach—in a different context than I was taught. When I went to Sunday school we brought the Jews out of Egypt, got ’em settled it the Holy land, took ’em into the Babylonian exile, and we left ’em there. The long Dark Ages were something you read about with tears but it had no meaning. We—I—we didn’t know what the Talmud was and we didn’t know what responsa meant—we weren’t taught this sort of— Today we get much more of the warmth and tradition, not—again—as a required way of life but simply as a warmer way of Jewish living. 29:12
SI: Do— (speaking simultaneously)
RK: Did I make it clear?
SI: Yes—do these modifications that you have introduced into your service tie in, in any way, with your work on the revision of the Union Prayer Book?
RK: Oh, yes—yes, of course. Actually the Union Prayer Book spans the gap—the whole movement. It takes in those who are very humanist, as well as those who are—we might say—very traditional Reform-wise, but not traditional Orthodox-wise—but Reform-wise. And we have—for example, there will be nine different services for the Friday evening, and they will range from a strict, traditional service with its Reform—Reformed qualities of—let’s say—70 years ago—and move over to—at the other end—to a service in which there’s a very freewheeling type of poetic approach to the themes of the liturgy. But none of it’s traditional language—maybe the Hebrew on one side—that’s from tradition—but the other side is not a translation—it’s not even a paraphrase—it’s just related to the theme. For example, if the theme is Creation, in Hebrew that’s a fixed—fixed prayer. Over here, that—the very—perhaps some poetic discussion or description of God and Creation.
SI: We would like, now, to introduce some other issues into the interview and we ask here not only for your personal evaluation, but also for your assessment of the Houston Jewish community’s feelings on the matter if you feel so qualified. First—perhaps the most timely—is the continuing Arab threat to Israel. 31:12
RK: What is your question?
SI: Well—your reaction but, more importantly, your assessment of the feelings of your congregation.
RK: Oh—I suppose the word is—is intense worry. It is not immediate—you know—it’s not like somebody in the next county’s threatening us personally, but so much of human effort—and so much of hope—went into the building of a land which is largely—largely—still refugees. A number of Jews from the free lands—from France and England and America, South America, South Africa—I mean—are relatively small. The large bulk of the migration came out of the camps of middle Europe, out of the—whatever migration was permitted out of eastern Europe after the war and practically the entire Arab Jewish world: Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, the areas of the Caucasus—you know—the sort of land between Russia and its parts with Persia. These were people who lived in medieval melees, who had no civil rights whatsoever. They were permitted the freedom of religion, and they were permitted to struggle for a living, mostly in the crafts—crafts like goldsmithing and silversmithing—and trade and, for them, this was the Promised Land. Now—for all of that to be so deeply threatened—it isn’t—you see what’s—what—what is in our minds is not a chunk of land here or a chunk of land there. The question in our minds is a question of extermination. Arafat says he wants—oh it’s such a lovely picture—you know —he wants—he wants a secular nation state composed of two peoples. Well—there were Arabs and Jews living there under the mandate with Britain and without any provocation or violence, there were three or four very serious riots that took life. There have been four wars—none of them Israel’s making—since then. Even the ’56 war—which was kind of a wild one with Britain and France involved too and the Suez Canal at stake—even that was after a rather extensive provision of military supplies in the Sinai Peninsula—in other words, a stockpiling of offensive weapons. So that—you know—you—you—you sit and you think, “How many times do you have to defend the right to live?” And that’s the way we see it. It’s not really the right to be a state—it’s the right to have—to live. We—we—we see an Arab victory as being a bloodbath.
SI: You must regard it— (speaking simultaneously)
RK: That’s the way we perceive it.
PI: My impression, from what you just said, is that the emotion involved is not due to—it’s not for the land itself—for—for the state of Israel. And I’ve always got the impression that it was—it was the land itself—I—I—no—I mean— the holy areas that did have a special meaning in itself—not just the welfare of the people there but the significance of the —of the area. 34:46
RK: Well—had Jews been free all over the world and not needed a refuge, there would have been a small colony of Jews living in Israel because they loved it, and a lot of us would go over to visit it because it has so many historic associations. But—now then—I can tell you, in my own experience, I—otherwise I say I’ve been a Zionist for a long time—I became—I was a cultural Zionist. That is—I believed that, somehow a concentration of Jews living in Israel and, therefore, not having to live—you know—adapting to another culture in another civilization—could—could recreate the kind of things that lead to the prophets, that lead to the Talmud, that lead to the great flowering of Jewish intellectual and spiritual civilization and that was all I asked—you know—the Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University and the right to have their own ways of faith. The White Paper in 1940 convinced me that there ought to be—that—that there—convinced me that the—the right to do these things. By that time the refugee problem had become great too, so that now there were people knocking on the door who had to come in—not just wanted to come in and be culturally Jewish. The White Paper by England, which limited immigration and—and—and would cut it off soon. It made me realize that there—there has to be one place in the world where a Jew can knock on the door and—and nobody can say they to him, “You can’t come in.” It is that simple—that no one can say to him, “You can’t come in.” And—and—and that is—is refugee Zionism, isn’t it? Added to cultural Zionism. I don’t have the feeling that—that—and— Of course, if you had said to me, “Let’s have a state in Uganda—” Who said that? That was 40 years ago—no—1903. I think it was Lawford. Can you imagine being in Uganda now? But—all right—we’ll take some spare territory in South America—and there was a templar there in Rothschild and—oh—we’ll open up a free land in—in—in Australia. And all of these—even in—in Russia the idea of Birobidzhan as sort of a Jewish republic. Jews never responded to it. It wasn’t merely that the—the—that Israel is holy, but if you’re going to have a—a—a state, again, you’re going to have cultural Zionism or refugee Zionism. Where else could you possibly think of it, except in the ancestral homeland? It’s—so that—I—the land comes second to me. When I went there the first time, of course, what I saw was Abraham riding a donkey—he had a little transistor radio, but it looked like Abraham on a donkey. And I loved Beersheba and the wild parts of the country and the archaeological ruins. The next time I went I became aware of the people—and it is them that we’re concerned with, not—not the territory. It’s the right to live.
SI: 37:39 Is your view peculiar to Reform Judaism? Or do the Orthodox Jews or the Conservative Jews look upon it more—look more toward the land as being sacred area than—than the concern with—and the people second?
RK: Well, I don’t know that I represent anybody. If you—if you go to Israel the—the greatest hawks for the retention of the West Bank tend to be the Orthodox party—the Orthodox religious party. They tend to be—they tend to be the most uptight about Hebron. They are defying the government in certain things that they want to do, and the Israeli government has to—has to stop them—Orthodox groups going out and opening new settlements and so forth. I suppose that—for the Orthodox, you see, it’s the promise: God said this will be your land, and now we’ve got to help God fulfill his promise, and a Reformed Jew doesn’t sell out with that kind of an assumption. It’s much more of a historic relationship. Why it took place there, we don’t know; although it’s a wonderful place for it to have happened. But—but there isn’t that kind of theological undergirding that makes the Orthodox much more concerned with—with—with the whole Holy land.
SI: You mentioned that— (speaking simultaneously)
RK: Now—the secular is—non-Ref—non-Orthodox would be much—much less uptight on that particular topic.
SI: —that the Reformed Jew would be more—
RK: He’s concerned with the people—the people more than the physical land. The right to live is of the state. The land—that’s—for the most part—has been purchased legitimately and I—I think all of us are concerned. I—I—all the Jews I speak to in Israel are concerned with the Arab refugee. They don’t agree on the solution that—that the Arabs propose, but they would be delighted to be part of a solution.
PI: You mentioned that the Temple Emanuel was founded with the idea of embracing both Zionists and non-Zionists. Now—then there was, of course, the succession of wars and how have attitudes towards Israel changed in the time you’ve been here? I take it most of the non-Zionists have—have left or unified.
RK: Well—I’d put it another way. The—even the anti-Zionists of—of 1940s are—most of them—most of them—quite sympathetic and concerned. I would call them pro-Zionists—not Zionists, but pro-Zionists. In other words, pro-Palestin—pro-Israels—pro-Israels. There, after all, is this history and they—you know—you can’t bury your head in the sand and you can’t ignore threats and you can’t ignore the—the gut feeling of—you know—of your own cousins and family being exposed to possible obliteration. And—so even Beth Israel—which was the sanctum of anti-Zionism is—I—I doubt if there are 10 percent of their people today who are opposed to anybody who’s Zionist. 40:47
PI: Speaking of the threat of extermination, is there a lot of agitation concerning the plight of the Russian Jews?
RK: Not as much here in Houston as I read about elsewhere. There is strong agitation in—in the United States, some communities much more than others and I’m not quite sure why—I’m not quite sure. We have been receiving Russian émigrés here in small numbers but I don’t sense too much—well—you know—when the Bolshoi was here—
PI: I got one of the— (speaking simultaneously)
RK: —we had a meeting across the street and I don’t think there were 75 people there—that includes the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. You know—there can’t be much agitation.
RK: These people are not very agitated—I’ll say that! There may be agitators, but there are no agitated.
SI: Since you are aware—I didn’t—when we did our research we didn’t know that you would become aware of—or involved with—some of the recent émigrés from Russia. How are they adapting themselves to conditions here?
RK: I—I wish I could answer. I don’t—I’m not quite sure. Most of them—you know—it’s a very real wrench for them because it’s not—it’s a change, not only of language and lifestyle—it’s a change in the whole pattern of— doc—you go into a doctor’s office and you have to pay? You know—they never paid for a doctor bill in their lives before. Getting a job—they go to a central agency and then—then they’re placed. Here they have to ask for a job. They have to open a bank account. They have to learn to shop at a grocery store—there’s all kinds of adaptations they have to make. Most of them are making it pretty well—most of those who came are now employed and are on the way to—to—to independence. 42:55 My wife’s on the committee and she could tell you more than I can, but my impression from her is that they’re doing a pretty good job of assimilating.
SI: Is your synagogue in—like—a program for them?
RK: Well—the community—you see—there—the numbers are so small—let’s say 30 people, maybe, at the present time. The numbers are so small that for any one congregation to try to have a program means that all of them would have to have a program, because everybody—you know—everybody would have to do the nice thing. So what we did was have a series of meetings at the various synagogues, and each of the rabbis gave—made them welcome and told them a little bit about his synagogue and their ideologies, and then a doctor would come and tell them about—how to handle medical problems and how to get medical insurance. Another time, a lawyer came. A banker came—how to make a loan, how to handle a bank account. In other words, a series of what I’d call adaptive lectures on American life and we did it as a group out of the Jewish Family Service. See, the—the one thing about—about Jewish life that is different, say, from the Protestant life—now the Roman Catholic church has a kind of a unified look, but then it’s all one denomination—we have three—we do a lot of work together through the community. We have a Jewish Community Council—which has the UJA annual campaign, which raises money for—if we had one—a Jewish hospital, Jewish hospitals in Denver, an orphan’s home in New Orleans, the B’nai B’rith in Washington, and the Anti-Defamation League in New York, and for Israel—land reforestation—and for the Hadassah Hospital, and so forth, and so forth, and so forth. All of our—all of our—the work that many churches do in their tithing, we do together through the United Jewish Appeal. But now we have a Jewish Family Service, which is a family—family service agency very parallel to the Houston Family Service, but designed to help Jews and to meet specific Jewish problems that arise. And they help us do a great deal of our mental health work. They help us form programs of family education and so forth and so forth. Now—a lot of the work takes place in the synagogue but with—with—with cooperation from these people. That’s a little bit different structure—community-wise—and it needs to be understood.
TI: I’d like to turn now to the survival of the synagogue as an institution. What do you see as its main—primary function as an institution? Is it strictly religious? Is it to keep intact the—the ethnic peculiarities of—of Judaism? Or—specifically, where do you see it’s main— 45:56
RK: Well—I’ll interview you. What do you mean by ethnic peculiarity?
TI: I—well—as an ethnic group.
RK: Uh-hunh. (affirmative)
TI: That’s what I meant.
RK: Well—the function of the synagogue, I think, is to keep the Jewish people alive by keeping Judaism alive—or the purpose of the synagogue is to propagate Judaism. I mean—otherwise there’s—there’s no need for it. We can have a Jewish Community Center, a Jewish Family Service—but we wouldn’t need a synagogue at all. So that it’s—and—and actually, as I read Jewish history it has been the religious motif, only, which has kept us alive. Now—in any single generation there are many Jews—a small proportion, but many Jews—who do not have any religion, and they regard themselves as Jews by ethnic alone and that’s probably always been true. But their children—and certainly their grandchildren—are very unlikely to be Jews because if they feel this way, then they’re not concerned about mixed marriage; and they’re not concerned about the education of their children in the Jewish faith; and they’re not concerned with any of the things that keep people alive so that they tend to—see—see—sort of bleed out, and those that are left are the ones who remain faithful to the Jewish faith and the Jewish religious interpretation of the Bible. And it seems to me the synagogue is the only institution which can provide this by its worship services, by its program of education, by its fellowship groups: Sisterhood and the Brotherhood and the PTA and the youth group and so forth. But—our—our—our prime purpose—it seems to me—is the Jewish religious identity. Now—we’re not leaving out the Jewish identity, but it’s the Jewish religious identity—
PI: Would you elaborate a little— (speaking simultaneously)
PI: ¬—on your program of education? 47:45
RK: I have to be honest with you, I’m—I’m a little bit out of touch with our religious school program in detail because we have an education director, and we have an associate rabbi, and I sit in on the education committee meetings—teach confirmation class. But let me—let me outline what I think has happened, let’s say, since I was a child. I never studied Hebrew—they didn’t offer it in my religious school. We have a very—not very—we have an intensive Hebrew program. We ask the youngsters—on a voluntary basis, of course—to come two afternoons a week for an hour, hour-and-a-half—for four or five years. Bar mitzvah is a signpost along the way and most of them drop out after that, but we do emphasize the teaching of Hebrew—this is the language of prayer. Now—we tell them, of course, that you’ll be able to talk to people in Israel, but they never learn that much—you know. In fact, when I go to Israel I have a hard time hearing—I can say it, but I can’t hear it. You know—the spoken language is quite different than the written language. Our—when I was in religious school we studied Jewish history for about eight years and, as I say, “we left them in Babylon,” and I had one course after confirmation where—again—a lot of the kids drop out. We had one course after confirmation that took us all the way from the fall of the second—second temple in 70 of the Common Era— to—to our age. Now our history program includes a sweep—sweep of history. When I was in religious school—mainly¬—Bible. In—oh—stories—story form. Today—we—we—we try to tea—to deal with the prophets, which is pretty mature reading. We take up—let’s say—modern social problems as seen through the eyes of men like Amos and Isaiah. We emphasize the Jewish community. We—we—we bring in speakers from these various agencies that I have mentioned to tell what they do and how they serve. When I went to religious school we used to bring our nickels and dimes—you know—to put in the charity box. Today we have a regular education in the kinds of agencies that this money goes to. It isn’t just for the poor, it’s for a variety of purposes: cultural and health and religious, and so forth. When I was a child, nobody—no Reform temple—taught anything about Israel in spite of the fact that, even at that time, the file for declaration had been issued, there had already been two or three migrant movements into Israel on a small scale. I didn’t even know it was there! Today we have a course—two or three courses or units, you might say—that relate the youngster to the land and its people. When I was a youngster we learned hymns only. Today we learn Hebrew folk songs or Israeli folk songs. When I was a youngster we—we didn’t have anything—courses—in, say, art or construction or that sort of thing. Today we have a lot of handwork—craft—arts and crafts. We try to teach the youngsters about the prayer book. We try to teach them about the Jewish faith as a set of theological propositions. We have confirmation as late as possible so we can hold them a long time. We have a high school department. We used to have one con—post-confirmation class—now we have two or three as a series, and so forth. In other words, it’s much more religiously ethnic. Before, it was only religious—you see—but now it’s religiously ethnic. In other words, it ties this up with—
PI: And much more comprehensive. 51:34
RK: Oh, yes.
PI: Is it typical though?
RK: Oh—I think ours is just about an average school in the Reform movement. A little more, maybe a little less—you know—but—the—you wouldn’t go far less, and you wouldn’t have much more because there isn’t time for much more.
PI: Well that’s¬ a gra— (speaking simultaneously)
RK: Now—there is
PI: —that you represent the—
RK: —there is a tendency today toward—toward parochial schools—day school—Jewish day schools. There is one Conservative one here and one Orthodox one. There are a couple of Reform day schools on the east and they grew out of psycho/sociological problems as much as they grew out of religious problems or educational problems. But that, too, is coming, and then—then we’ve gone into Jewish camping—that’s the big new wave. We’re just getting ready to build a camp up here—Waco. You get a youngster at camp for four or five weeks—from morning to night he’s a member of a Jewish community and you can just stuff him full and—Vwam! Not “Oh—do I have to go to Hebrew school again?” You see? So that’s—that’s a big item today, camping, and we have a large retreat program that never would have occurred to my rabbi. We have three retreats for the confirmation class, two for the ninth grade, one each for the eighth and seventh and sixth grade. They go out for a weekend. They’ll take up some problem—perhaps Jewish values, the meaning of Israel, Tevye of—with Fiddler On The Roof. In other words, they take up some chunk of Jewish learning and explore it—you see—and in the exploration they do exercises. They do research. They bring a pile of books—you know—they’re all looking through for— Maybe one’s going to do a film presentation and another’s going to do a series of construction works—and we really get some interesting and enthusiastic results from these retreats. I’m going on one next week with my bar mitzvah boys. It’s not enough just to teach them Hebrew. I think they ought to know what coming of age in Judaism means. They ought to know what the prayer book really has to say that—I know—what a boy who becomes bar mitzvahed is obligated to. 53:37
PI: You mentioned earlier that you had some converts in your church, some of whom were black. I’d like to explore this further—only now I’d like to turn it around and ask about the efforts of Christians, especially the Evangelical sects, to convert Jews. Has this been—I’ll say—much of a problem or an issue here?
RK: Well—I couldn’t say how effective the Christian missionary movements are ’cause I don’t know. I have known one young man to have joined Jews For Jesus for about a period of a year and then returned, and then one young woman who joined a Gospel Assembly Church of one sort or another here—her folks don’t live here; they live in El Paso. And—outside of those, I really have no memory except, perhaps, of some leaving through mixed marriage where the Jew sort of just—he doesn’t renounce his Judaism—he just sort of drifts away from any interest in Jewish life. So I—I would say offhand that I don’t know of much success that they’ve achieved. I find them annoying, and occasionally I get angered. This summer I got rather—rather angered, and so I sat down and wrote a letter on asbestos to the fella—and tore it up. But—there’s—I don’t look upon this as a significant thing in Houston. Now, maybe someone could convince me that it’s significant in Chicago or New York—I’m not sure. Our own conversions are unsolicited. I—I—I think that’s the big difference. Yeah—if a—if a kid—I know youngsters—I had one in the army—that’s the third one—he had been befriended by the chaplain of his outfit when he was near death, and he had—the man was so warm and so charismatic that, when he got well, he joined the church. And—I really—I was distressed for his parents more than I was for him. If he’s looking for a faith that satisfies him—well, God bless him—that’s—it’s a free country. Not that I would urge it, but—you know—it can happen. On the other hand, we’ll have—oh—10 or 12 people a year—not we’ll have 10 or 12 who are—marry—into the Jewish faith and join it in marrying—and they will come for conversion, and another 10 or 12 will come because they’re unhappy in their faith: They are not getting anything out of it; there’s something missing; they’re not getting spiritual satisfaction; they don’t like the food; and so they come to take—to try—the situation, if you will. And I’d say about three-quarters of them go on and become members of the faith and then try to establish Jewish homes and belong to the synagogue and that sort of thing.
PI: The reason I asked was simply because the so-called “Charismatic Movement” is big in Houston now, and I was wondering if many of the Jewish faith had been attracted to it. It seems like people from all walks of life and all religions are drawn in to it. 56:52
RK: Well—if they are, they’re not telling me about it.
TI: Okay. I was curious when—when you said that you were very angry at one of these missionaries, I think you said? What—what was it that angered you? What—was he overzealous in his approach— (speaking simultaneously)
RK: It was—
TI: —to the congregation?
RK: It was—it was my own sudden realization of a dimension that I hadn’t thought of. Usually, the—the line—goes something like this: “Rabbi—you are a lovely man and it just pains me to think of you being in hell for eternity.” Well—I laugh because I don’t intend to be in hell for eternity and I don’t think that the—the God I worship would do that to anybody, you know? He might give me a couple a good punches for things I’ve done and deserved but—but I just can’t conceive of Him saying, “Well son, you’ve gone to the wrong faith—you went to the wrong synagogue. You’re done. You’re finished.” My—my conception of God just doesn’t run that way and it doesn’t deny heaven to the non-Jew. There’s this very strong tolerant thread in Jewish life going all the way back to Micah. It says that the non-Jew was given a law through Noah and if he keeps it, he’s just as good, in God’s eyes, as the Jew who was given the law through Moses. Well—that’s—that’s my fundamental view. Alright, so you say I’m going to hell. You will be surprised to see me on the gate that day—that’s my usual reaction. Well, this fella wrote in reaction to a funeral sermon for Morris Frank (??) in which—speaking poetically and not theologically—I said at the end, “I don’t know what the future world is like, but I have a feeling it’s somewhere Morris Frank is the MC and the angels are chuckling—”a sweet way to end a sermon and I didn’t promise anything. I said I didn’t know, but this was a way of summing up his life. I got a letter: “Angels don’t laugh; angels don’t chuckle. Only devils chuckle,” and a few quotations and some—you know—“those who don’t believe are going to end in hell,” etc., etc., etc. and all of a sudden, I began to think about it. Oh—and it ended with a lovely invitation to join. I began thinking, and all of a sudden I thought to myself—you know—if I’d say to this fellow, “All right—take me in,” I’d then have to believe what he believes, and I’d have to say that my dad, who was as fondest a man as I’ve ever known and exceedingly gentle with little things: babies and puppies and kittens and went out in boots and a heavy fur coat to solicit for the community chest and the UJA and B’nai B’rith—he’s gonna be in hell and I’ve got to believe it! And I got mad. Here—you want to tell me to go to hell? All right, tell me to go to hell—doesn’t bother me. But you tell me my dad is in hell and I’m supposed to join you in believing it? That’s why I say I was angry. It was anger in me, not that he—he didn’t say my dad was in hell. But I suddenly realized what, if I joined him, I would be believing.
TI: And what the conclusion would lead to—
RK: Yeah. I was—that was the—well—I was angry and, as I say, I wrote a letter on asbestos and then I tore it up. 1:00:14
SI: While we’re on the subject of intolerance, I guess would be a good word to use, I’d like to ask you about the ban on praying in public schools. How—how—how do you stand on that issue? Some of the more, I suppose, radical Christians say—seem to feel—that it’s an outrage to have religion or prayer banned in schools, apparently under the assumption everyone is—everyone is Christian.
RK: Well—all right. Let me—let me just share some experiences. Most Jews feel uncomfortable, whether in public school or at rotary club or any place else when a minister, after a very beautiful prayer that seems to include everybody, excludes those who don’t pray through Christ. This is—it’s—it’s offensive, you know. You didn’t have to do it. I know ministers who manage to say, “in His name” or “for Thy sake.” You know—which—they even have one “Thy” or one “His” and I have another one. So we both have our references and the prayer is inclusive—it takes us all in, but now I’m talking about prayer. We’re talking about religious things of various sorts. My son was at school and he did “The Seven Last Words” and during this—very beautiful musical number, by the way, if you look at it as just music—there’s a crowd of Jews over here saying, “Crucify him, crucify him!” and, he says, everyone turned around and looked at me. Now, I don’t know whether they did or they didn’t, but he felt them looking at him. This is a terrible thing to put on a child, you see. And I suppose that if prayers in public schools had started out as strictly non-sectarian and non-denominational—maybe; but they didn’t and there’s no way, really, to make them that way.
PI: Right—I was—
RK: You know—I mean—a Baptist minister says, “I can’t pray that way. What do you expect of me? This is my religion.” Now—the Supreme Court said—I kept saying it, as if I was a child—this is not the separation of church and state. The Supreme Court ended up agreeing. Well, it seems to me the people who really believe in: 1) Separation of church and state ought to understand this and 2) Even more important—it seems to me that teachers who tell the children that the law is to be obeyed—defrocked the Supreme Court interpretation of the law—is to encourage children to say that the American way really—you know—if you just obey those laws, that you’ll agree with them. 1:02:51
PI: Have you initiated any litigation to this area?
RK: No. No, I haven’t.
PI: So the Supreme Court agreeing with you is more a matter of other— (speaking simultaneously)
RK: Somebody else—
RK: —I think that—I don’t remember who brought the suit because I was—I would of—if I’d been one of those commuters, 1:03:07 I would have been very happy to join and to the extent that the Jews—Jewish organizations became amicus curiae now. I was with them.
PI: Of course, there was always kind of an unfortunate stigma involved with this Madalyn Murray— (speaking simultaneously)
RK: I know, I know.
PI: —who was an atheist—
RK: Yeah—I—well, I’m not gonna let the atheists deflect me from a good cause.
PI: I guess we’d—
SI: There was one question—
SI: Yeah—ha—has there been any noticeable, in the years that you’ve been here, anti-Semitism in Houston? Has it been obvious or—?
RK: I have been—I have felt that there is very, very little anti-Semitism in Houston—almost no organized incidents and very little general incidents. Now, to what extent my observations are correct? I don’t know, really. I’m told that there is more—there’s more anti-Semitism today, generally, than there has been in the last few years. But I don’t know how the people who say this—how they decide—and whether they’re talking about Houston or talking about the country, in general. My impression is it’s very rare.
PI: Other persons we have interviewed have remarked that the anti-Semitism in Houston, such as it is, is covert and will take forms such as deed restrictions. Have you encountered much of this?
RK: Oh—even that passed away. There was a great deal of that after the war but I—I’d have a hard time finding any of that—even—even deed restrictions—now. There are ways of discouraging people from buying property—you know—but I don’t think you’d find that easily—they’re illegal. Deed restrictions are illegal.
PI: Do you know, offhand, who it was that put an end to these practices? Was there an organized effort?
RK: To some extent—and then economics did it. 1:05:19
PI: How so?
RK: Well—you—you—you want to sell houses by restricting the neighborhood to white gentiles and there aren’t enough white gentiles to buy the houses. Well—now what are you gonna do with those extra houses? You’ve got to sell them to somebody.
SI: Economic morality—very bad.
PI: The invisible hand.
RK: Yes, that’s right. No, I—I think, from that point of view, that Houston’s really a very healthy town.
PI: You did, on one occasion, denounce Robert Welch—I believe—founder of— (speaking simultaneously)
RK: Not as Nazi, mind you. 1:05:53
PI: —as a paranoid and—well—just—reminding you—
RK: ¬—finding you a Nazi is paranoid—you know—I—I have some of my best friends are paranoid.
PI: Well, I—
RK: One of them said to me, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean nobody’s chasing me.”
PI: But—when I read that particular quotation I was reminded of—of other organizations like the Birchers, such as the Ku Klux Klan—
RK: Well—I don’t—
RK: —put them in the same—well, unless you speak of extreme right—yeah, then in that case, you could put them together.
PI: But they haven’t been very active either on this front?
RK: Not that I know of—of their being—John Birch Society disclaims, vehemently, any anti-Semitism. They may have some anti-Semites as members but they—their official policy is absolute opposal. I know this.
PI: We haven’t touched, in the interview, on your considerable activities with the National Organization. I guess we’d like to move into that area now—
RK: Now—you know, I’ve got an appointment at 2:00—you told me one hour and I—
SI: Yes, it is.
RK: —if we get—well, what is it you want to know? Just what they’ve been? Or what I think about it?
PI: Well, no—I had one fairly specific question, so I’ll just ask that and then we’ll wrap it up. Some observers have given some political import to your election as vice president in 1971. Specifically, you were elected from the floor over the nominee, Rabbi Leonard Beerman, and there were those who thought this might signify that the conference was taking a new direction. Do you agree with that?
RK: Very hard to say. As I recall it—and as I understood it 1:07:44—it begins where we’re talking, now, about guesses—a group of young kids, a little dissatisfied with the establishment as it were, came into the nominating committee meeting at which I and another old guard had been nominated, and were sort of in a seesaw. They came in and insisted on Rabbi Beerman, who is considerably younger, considerably more pacifist, probably more socially active, although I don’t know. I mean, we each have our own habits with those regards. So his was the candidate—his was the anti-establishment candidacy—and my nomination from the floor was a reaction to that. So it was kind of like the old guard reassuming its position, although I really was not part of the old guard and I’m not part of the young guard. I—I—I never played politics in this particular way, and I gave this reasonable leadership and middle of the road deal because I could—encouraging neither the young nor the old, but trying to get conversations going.
PI: And that is your policy today? 1:08:46
RK: Well, I’m out of office now, but that was my policy. It’s an attempt to bring the ends toward the middle in terms of communication and decision-making.
PI: We’ve gone through our prepared questions and we certainly—
RK: I appreciate it.
PI: —don’t want to keep you any longer—
RK: Well—I—if I hadn’t made this engagement— It’s been fun but—I will—I will end it.
PI: On behalf of the archives we’d like to thank you very much for the interview.
RK: Thank you.
SI: It was thoroughly enjoyable. Thank you.
RK: Well, I’m glad you—
1:09:30 [End of Tape]