Do for others, Lantos tells Kehillah grads

Kids today, said Rep. Tom Lantos, need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This means developing a “formula for lifetime happiness based on doing things not for yourself, but for others.”

This was the message Lantos (D-San Mateo) gave to 22 graduates and 400 guests at this year’s Kehillah Jewish High School commencement ceremony, held Sunday, June 10 at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos.

“Look beyond yourself, and dream big,” Lantos told the congregation of guests and honorees. “Focus your actions on others, even those whom you may never know.” This includes giving tzedakah, participating in community service and pursuing spiritual connections.

Lantos’ message about global peace and personal identity was consistent with his experience as a Holocaust survivor, the only one to serve in the U.S. Congress.

The 80-year-old, Hungarian-born Congressman grew up in a forced labor camp when Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in March of 1944. By the age of 18, he had lost both parents to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Lantos believed he “probably would not survive,” so he might as well be of use to humanity. During the German occupation of Hungary, he was placed in a forced labor camp. As a fighter who twice escaped from the camp, he delivered messages, food and medical supplies to those who were ailing.

The British Broadcasting Corporation became his dear companion. “The BBC was our lifeline to the outside world,” he said. “Every evening we would close the shutters, lower the curtains and huddle around the radio set. We hung on to the BBC every night.”

In his progression from a penniless immigrant to the U.S. Congress, Lantos reminds us that the measure of mankind is through its humility and selflessness. It is through these attributes that we become powerful in our own merit, he contends.

It also has implications for America and its relationship to the world. “Restoring America’s public image abroad and within will take a long time,” he said. “In the meantime, we need to be far more open and respectful in our ideas and dealings with others.

“The first step is a change in attitude,” he continued. “We need to be more multilateral in our thinking. Whether the subject is terrorism, problems in Darfur or denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, we need the collaboration and support from other countries.”

In his recent travels to the Middle East, Lantos, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, sought to reach a connection of diplomacy on both a personal and national front. During his trip, he met with several wealthy and powerful leaders. “And still,” he said, directing his remarks to the graduating youth, “they don’t seem very happy.”

Lantos was also inspired by political, spiritual and intellectual icons such as Winston Churchill, Hubert Humphrey and the Dalai Lama. From them, he says he has learned some powerful lessons — not just for politics, but for living one’s life.

Among the lessons lies the philosophy he lives by — that true fulfillment and happiness come from serving others.

“I didn’t achieve this [freedom] because of what I am. It happened because of what this country is,” he said.

Lantos believes today’s youth live in a difficult age. “They grow up fast and with such growth — opportunities for escapism and disagreement are much more seductive.”