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This book is an unprecedented examination of 160 years of Jewish prayers delivered in the literal and figurative center of American democracy.

Does it seem strange that meetings of the Senate and the House of Representatives begin with an invocation delivered by an ordained clergy person? After all, the First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

That wording appears to set up a “wall between church and state.” Requiring a prayer before Congress looks like establishing religion. How is that kosher?

The answer is a long story.

On Sept. 7, 1774, the Continental Congress began its deliberations in Philadelphia with a prayer by a local clergyman, the Rev. Jacob Duche of Christ Church. In the summer of 1776, the delegates appointed him chaplain to Congress.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin proposed that each session start with a “prayer for heavenly help.” Franklin himself usually took a benevolently skeptical stance toward religions of all varieties. This time, he thought we needed prayer. Perhaps he felt too worried about the possible failure of the convention.

The Constitution that came out of that convention gave the Senate and House of Representatives the power to “chuse” their officers. The newly constituted legislatures each promptly appointed a chaplain in April and, in May 1789, Congress authorized paying the chaplains in September. The Bill of Rights did not go into effect until Dec. 15, 1791. Chaplains came before the First Amendment.

The originalist question, “What did the Founding Fathers intend by adopting the First Amendment?” has a clear answer: The men who ratified the Bill of Rights approved of chaplains praying for the legislatures. However, James Madison, who wrote the Bill of Rights, called the office of chaplain “a violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.” Ask the originalist question about the writer, rather than the ratifiers, and Madison intended to have no chaplain.

In the late 1850s, Congress tried to do without a paid chaplain; instead, any local clergyman could volunteer as guest chaplain. When it proved too hard to get volunteers, Congress went back to paying official chaplains, but the option of having a guest chaplain remained.

First Rabbi

In 1860, Rabbi Morris Raphall of B’nai Jeshurun in New York delivered the opening prayer in the House, the first non-Christian guest chaplain. A Union supporter, Rabbi Raphall later delivered a sermon on slavery in the biblical tradition; the sermon was a big hit in the South. Rabbi Raphall’s son served as an officer in the Union Army, even after losing his right arm at Gettysburg.

During the Civil War, Jews petitioned to make rabbis eligible to serve as chaplains in the Union Army. After all, a rabbi had already served as guest chaplain in the House. Rabbi Arnold Fischel of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York petitioned President Abraham Lincoln, who responded in a letter: “I shall try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you on behalf of the Israelites.”

On July 17, 1862, Rabbi Jacob Frankel became the first rabbi to serve as a chaplain in the Army of the United States.

As of February 2020, 441 rabbis have served as guest chaplain in the Senate or the House of Representatives. In 2018, the total number of opening prayers led by rabbis reached 613. Howard Mortman’s quirky book When Rabbis Bless Congress records the history of the institution of guest chaplaincy, the names of rabbis who served, brief biographies of some rabbis, excerpts of the texts of some prayers and acknowledgement of the legislators who recommended these rabbis. Mortman provides statistical analyses of the appearance of rabbis before the legislature.

Some guest chaplains of interest to Detroit Jews: The book briefly mentions Rabbi Leon Fram, the founding rabbi of Temple Israel who served prominently in the Detroit rabbinate for 62 years, and Rabbi Morton Kanter, who offered an opening prayer in the Senate in 1971 while a rabbi at Temple Beth El.

Other rabbis mentioned in the book have Detroit connections. Rabbi Gershon Avtzon, founder and rosh yeshivah of the Lubavitch Yeshiva of Cincinnati, served as a guest chaplain. Rabbi Avtzon’s father, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Avtzon, grew up in Michigan, one of the 15 children of Rabbi Meir and Mrs. Cheyena Bina Avtzon who came to Detroit from the Soviet Union in 1953.

Rabbi Abraham Shemtov and his son, Rabbi Levi Shemtov of Washington, D.C., both have served as guest chaplain. Rabbi Abraham Shemtov’s brother, Rabbi Berel Shemtov, came to Oak Park 60 years ago. He and his family have held leadership roles in the Detroit Jewish community ever since.

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