When Rab­bis Bless Con­gress: The Great Amer­i­can Sto­ry of Jew­ish Prayers on Capi­tol Hill

  • Review
By – January 18, 2021

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.

Discussion Questions