“When the Congress of life is adjourned and they answer the final quorum call, may the Eternal Committee report out a clean bill on their lives. Finally, by unanimous consent of the Heavenly House, may the Infinite Speaker recognize them on both sides of the aisle with this reward: ‘Well done, good and faithful servants of my people.’ ”
With these words Rev. Elmo Romagosa gave the opening invocation in the House of Representatives on March 2, 1966. Though not Jewish, Romagosa reflects the ethos at the heart of Howard Mortman’s new book, When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill. Mortman, the communications director for C‑SPAN, offers the first-ever full-length treatment of the Jewish leaders who offered prayers to open sessions in both the Senate and the House. Within the context and history of the predominantly non-Jewish prayers offered by Christian guest chaplains like Romagosa, Mortman details an exhaustive highlight reel of rabbinic offerings.
From Morris Raphall’s pioneering first Jewish prayer in the halls of power in 1860, which the New York Times noted at the time was delivered “in full canonicals,” to contemporary rabbinic leaders including Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter and former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Mortman reviews the hundreds who have been given this exclusive honor by sponsoring governmental representatives. He provides numerical analysis (including how many are from New York, how many women both offered prayers and have been mentioned in prayers, how many served as army chaplains, who gave the symbolically meaningful 613th Jewish prayer, which biblical book they are most likely to cite [Isaiah] and how many countries these rabbis originally hailed from — twenty-four).
Along the way, Mortman discusses a wide range of themes, including how these Jewish leaders expressed gratitude to America alongside religious loyalty to Israel (one rabbi once remarked “Our Zion is in Washington”), how the range of speakers reflects immigration patterns into the United States and even geo-political alliances, and who had particularly close connections to US Presidents (one Baruch Korff authored a book called The President and I: Richard Nixon’s Rabbi Reveals His Role in the Saga That Traumatized the Nation; another, Gerald Klein, was Jack Ruby’s rabbi; and three-time speaker Edward Browne was once arrested and “charged with annoying” President Calvin Coolidge.)
Students of Jewish history, American political history, and anyone who would appreciate amusing trivia along the lines of the fact that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson has been cited more in Capitol Hill prayers than Moses will enjoy this jam-packed and entertaining chronicle.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.