Feb 15 2015

A Dinner to Remember

by at 10:52 am under Uncategorized

I hope that you are in a warm place. Days like this remind me of when I was a medical resident in Burlington, Vermont, where days like today were fairly common and lows of -20 degrees happened at least a few times every winter. But, I was younger and more tolerant of the cold than I am these days. We spent the weekend visiting our kids, so at least our hearts were warm. I couldn’t think of a more wonderful way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It was nice to decompress a bit after a very busy week. We flew back from our little mini-vacation on Monday, and I headed straight off to an evening meeting with MedStar Health and GUMC senior leadership to discuss our ongoing expansion of the MedStar Georgetown Cancer Network. Tuesday was fully devoted to the annual NCI Cancer Center Director’s Meeting. About 55 of the 68 NCI-designated Cancer Center directors were present, along with NCI leadership. One of the major themes of the meeting was the emergence of collaborations among cancer centers. Two shared resource consortia – one in San Diego, and the other in Philadelphia – were discussed. The Mid-Atlantic Shared Resource Consortium in which we participate is another example of collaboration among cancer centers. I predict that these types of activities will expand in the future, and that expansion will include sharing of scientific program activities.

Though I had plenty of other work to do, during the rest of the week I was pretty busy with the Georgetown University Board of Directors activities. Those activities included a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the Committee on Medical Center Affairs, followed by a Wednesday evening dinner of the Board and a full Board meeting on Thursday morning. The dinner was quite wonderful. I was seated next to Kayla Henderson, the amazing Chancellor of the DC Public School System and on the other side of me was Father Stephen Sundborg, a remarkable and wise man. He and I were chatting about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I wryly remarked that Israel should adopt an approach that I dubbed the “Kenahora” strategy. Kenahora is a Yiddish work that roughly means, “ward off the evil eye.” My little witticism was overheard by the man sitting on the other side of Father Sundborg. The man leaned over and said, “Did I just really hear the word ‘kenahora’ in the Riggs Library of Georgetown University? It turns out that man, Sir Gilbert Levine, like myself, is the child of a Holocaust survivor. We exchanged our parents’ histories, entrancing Father Sundborg in the process.

At dinner Levine shared his remarkable story, which he amplified on the following morning at the board meeting. Gilbert is a Jewish man from Brooklyn who grew up to be an acclaimed conductor. About 30 years ago he was appointed as the conductor of the symphony orchestra in Krakow, Poland. This newsworthy event – a Jewish man appointed to a major cultural post in a communist nation that was the epicenter of the Holocaust – was written up in Newsweek, and read in the Vatican. As a result, Levine was invited to speak with the Archbishop of Krakow, and ultimately was then invited to the Vatican, where he met Pope John Paul II in a private audience. One thing led to another, and he ended up being appointed as Conductor of the Vatican orchestra, where he served for 17 or so years, until the Pope’s death. He became a bit of a fixture on PBS, and his tenure was highlighted by a remarkable event – the official Vatican musical remembrance of the Holocaust – attended by the Pope, the Mayor of Rome and the Chief Rabbi of Rome. Apparently, it was the first time in history that a Chief Rabbi had been invited to the Vatican. The three dignitaries were seated, at chairs of equal height, near a menorah containing only six candles – one for each million Jews who had died in the Holocaust. After the moving musical performance had ended the Pope mingled with the attendees – including Levine’s parents, who were Polish survivors of the Holocaust (though his larger family had lost 40 members). The Pope approached Mrs. Levine, speaking to her in Polish, and demonstrating his enormous humanity by telling her, “I know. I was there.” His kindness lifted a nearly life-long cloud of suffering remembrance from her. This wonderful example of inter-religious understanding is a powerful reminder of how Georgetown can be a meeting place for people of different backgrounds who can discover their commonalities and celebrate their differences.

As our cancer center grows and reaches out into ever broader communities we will do well to strive to search for those elements that we share, while respecting the differences that make each of us distinctive. In this way, the great lessons of history can help us in our own work.

Have a good week, and stay warm.

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