By Amy Nankin
Since the Civil War, over 400 rabbis have offered prayers during the opening sessions of Congress, according to C-SPAN Communications Director Howard Mortman, author of the soon to be released book When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill.
Mortman shared his findings during a recent Zoominar sponsored by Moment Magazine, where he was joined by Rabbi Mark Getman and Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, who have both served as guest chaplains.
“The history of prayer in Congress and chaplains goes back to the very beginning, even before independence, the Continental Congress opened with a prayer in 1774,” Mortman said. “What I’m showing you is not an argument for/against church state, I know that’s the first question that comes up, but this is to show you just the rich history of prayer in Congress, and in this particular instance being Jewish, of the rabbis.” Mortman notes that most rabbis give their prayers directly to God and not to the members of Congress.
The elected chaplain coordinates guest chaplains, who are sponsored by a member of Congress, to give the opening prayer. The congressional sponsor typically gives a speech with a short biography about the guest chaplain after the prayer.
The first time a rabbi served as a guest chaplain was on February 1, 1860. Since then, 441 different rabbis across all denominations have opened Congress in prayer 632 times, representing over 400 synagogues. Over 100 of the rabbis have given prayers multiple times, Mortman said. “Even though we’re talking about a small number of total guest chaplains, there’s enough here, I think, to be proud of this history, but even more to study it and to learn who they are and what they said.”
Mortman showed clips of various rabbis who have given prayers to Congress. He explained the significance of the chosen rabbi and how some were able to tie current political events into their prayers.
For example, Rabbi Resnicoff said in one of his many opening prayers, “Thanksgiving is a choice, give thanks, build on moments that give hope or give up, succumbing to despair. On this house floor last week [November 2019], Congressman John Lewis walked across the aisle, honoring, embracing Senator Johnny Isakson with simple but inspiring words, ‘I will come over to meet you brother.’ When we see another not as other, but instead as brother, sister, neighbor, that is cause for thanks.” Resnicoff, a retired U.S. Navy Chaplain and Vietnam War veteran, is the current record holder for the most times a rabbi has been a congressional guest chaplain 16 times—8 times in the Senate and 8 in the House.
Mortman also discussed the history of women rabbis who have served as guest chaplains; 14 have given opening prayers. “The first women rabbi guest chaplain is also the first [American] woman rabbi, Rabbi Sally Priesand on October 23 1973,” Mortman said.
Some guest rabbis have been Holocaust survivors. Most recently, 91-year-old Romi Cohn of Brooklyn, NY gave the opening prayer to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 29, 2020. In addition to being a survivor, he joined the Slovak partisans and became the youngest partisan to fight the Nazis as a teenager. Unfortunately, Cohn died of COVID-19 two months after giving the prayer, Mortman said.
Rabbi Capt. Mark Getman, a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Canarsie, also in Brooklyn, served as a guest chaplain on July 24, 2019 and was the first and only rabbi to wear a tallit while giving a prayer. Getman also played a rabbi on the T.V. series `The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “It’s a lifetime experience, an amazing experience, it didn’t hit me until afterwards that I was standing at the same spot where presidents have addressed Congress. It’s awe inspiring and an amazing opportunity that I will never forget,” Getman said.
Resnicoff thinks it’s important that rabbis are included in the offering of prayers before the House and Senate. “I think it’s important to have rabbis giving the prayers because we want a Jewish voice at the table. When I used to try to convince rabbis to be military chaplains they would ask me ‘how many Jews are in the military?’ and I’d say ‘I’ll answer that later,’ but even if there were not a single Jewish service member we should have Jewish chaplains because when the leaders sit down to talk about issues of war and peace, life and death, I want a Jewish voice at that table,” Resnicoff said. “The same goes for Congress. Before the legislatures discuss the issues of crucial importance to all of us in America and a prayer lays the foundation to touch their hearts, maybe to have them see the bigger picture, I want a Jewish prayer.”
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