Deborah: Sadly, I’m watching yet another evacuation of a Jewish center on TV. I know what it’s like to oversee an evacuation during a bomb threat. I was in charge of security at a Jewish agency in Chicago, was trained by the FBI in security after the Oklahoma City bombing, and oversaw the design for a secure Jewish Community Center in Chattanooga.
As the recent wave of anti-Semitic acts spreads across our nation, I thought about my father who was a US military intelligence officer assigned to interrogate Nazi prisoners of war. He wrote about how intelligent, educated people got sucked into a growing vortex of hate. What can be done to prevent that from happening today? How can I make a difference in counteracting hate?
My friend and colleague, Terry Howard, and I were kicking those questions around recently when suddenly the situation got more complicated.
Terry: What makes this even more difficult to swallow, and embarrassing, is that the man, an African-American, was charged with making bomb threats against Jewish community centers, schools and a Jewish history museum. Now before that news broke, Deborah and I (she Jewish and I African American) had already decided to collaborate on something about the positive historical relationship between Jews and African-Americans, stories that typically don’t make the headlines.
Deborah: When Terry suggested firing up our humanity with uplifting stories, I shared my highschool efforts during the Civil Rights Movement: picketing Chemical Bank in protest of its investment in South African apartheid and working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on economic equity. I was surrounded by like-minded Jews who understood the teachings of history: oppression of one group means oppression of all. This was not just an African-American movement, but an American movement.
When an African American was charged with those bomb threats, as Terry mentioned, I felt a sense of urgency to bring to light positive stories about Black-Jewish collaboration. Counteracting hate should be a top priority.
Terry: Yes, so Deborah and I decided to write about the special relationship between Dr. Michael Feld, a Jew from New York, and the late Dr. Ronald E. McNair, an African-American from South Carolina.
The story begins with Dr. Feld who became a member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faculty in 1968, having received his undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees at there. During his 52 years at MIT he directed the George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory and was well known in the field of quantum optics. He later directed MIT’s Laser Biomedical Research Center. His tenure overlapped with MIT’s Jewish president, Dr. Jerome B. Wiesner whose background as President Kennedy’s science advisor may have influenced Feld’s own work on behalf of minority students, staff and faculty. Feld was particularly fond of his relationship with Ron McNair.
“Dr. Feld had an amazing track record of mentoring African-American scientists, including astronaut Ronald McNair, who received his PhD under Michael’s supervision. In turn, Ron became Michael’s karate master. Michael delighted in illustrating the physics of karate with classroom demonstrations like breaking a wooden board with a swift blow,” said Edmund Bertschinger, then head of MIT’s Department of Physics. Outside the MIT community, little is known about Feld and the special relationship he had with McNair, Feld and his sons receiving karate lessons from McNair in the basement of a nearby church in Cambridge, Mass.
“In 1970, Ron was a rising senior year at North Carolina A&T State University which is an HBCU (Historic Black Colleges & Universities). He was accepted into an exchange program at MIT,” recalled Ron’s brother, Carl McNair. In 1971, When Ron became a PhD student at MIT in 1971, Dr. Michael Feld became Ron’s advisor and eventually, his thesis advisor.
“Michael found Ron to be disciplined and willing to work hard. But Ron was shocked to discover that students at MIT labored 60 or 70 hours per week on their coursework and labs,” remembers Carl. However, Dr. Feld recognized Ron’s potential and gave him the guidance needed to succeed at MIT. “Despite their close friendship, Dr. Feld cut him no slack,” said Carl.
While at MIT, McNair performed some of the earliest development of chemical and high-pressure lasers. His later experiments and theoretical analysis on the interaction of intense CO2 laser radiation with molecular gases provided new understandings and applications for polyatomic molecules.
In 1978 Ron was selected from a pool of 10,000 prospects by NASA as an astronaut candidate and was the second African American to fly aboard a Space Shuttle. His first flight as a mission specialist was on the Challenger in 1984 and orbited the earth 122 times. This mission marked the first flight of the Manned Maneuvering Unit and the first use of the Canadian arm, operated by McNair, to position crewman around Challenger’s payload. As far as anyone knows, Ron McNair was the first human ever to play a saxophone in space.
Deborah: The tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger took the lives of seven Astronauts, including Dr. McNair. However he and Dr. Feld’s personal, professional, and academic achievements remain an inspiration for aspiring scientists. The relationship between Dr. McNair and Dr. Feld should serve as inspiration of a different kind. They remind us of the value of mentorship, the beauty of friendship, the productivity of collaboration and the impact of reaching across cultural lines.
As Dr. Feld’s son David commented, “The story of the relationship between Ron and Dad is precisely the antidote to this hostile atmosphere. Every time I look at the picture below of Ron and Dad I get this indescribably warm feeling inside.”
Ultimately, Dr. Feld and Dr. McNair demonstrate that the recent acts of hate are the exception, and not the norm. Stories like theirs are the key to counteracting hate. Our humanity can, and will, carry us forward.