Previous Next

Download Image   View Printable Version

Jacob Frankel, Chaplaincy Certificate, 2 March 1864 (SC-15538), American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio. Courtesy Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia, PA.
President Lincoln appoints the first Jewish Chaplains
The American tradition of clergy serving with the military began during the Revolutionary War with the Continental Congress enacting payment for chaplains in 1775. These first chaplains were exclusively Protestant although Catholic chaplains were added during the Mexican War in 1848.

During the Civil War, approximately 6,500 Jews fought in the Union Army. At the outset, there were no rabbis to minister to these Jewish soldiers. When several rabbis asked to enlist they were refused on the grounds that only Christians could serve as clergy or chaplains.

This matter came to the attention of President Lincoln when the Pennsylvania-based "Cameron's Dragoons," a regiment with a large number of Jews, elected Rabbi Arnold Fischel from New York as their chaplain. The Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, for whom the regiment was named, denied Fischel's application for chaplain status because he was not a Christian. In addition, the YMCA and other Christian organizations began to lobby Congress to uphold the exclusion of rabbis from the armed services.

In response, the Board of Delegates of the American Israelites and prominent Jewish leaders including Isaac Mayer Wise and Isaac Leeser began a campaign to include Jews as chaplains. Rabbi Fischel took his case to Washington, meeting with Lincoln at the White House on 11 December 1861. The President told Fischel he believed the exclusion of Jewish chaplains was unintentional on the part of Congress and agreed that something ?ought to be done.? Fulfilling his promise, Lincoln submitted a list of suggestions to the House Committee on Military Affairs which included changing the chaplaincy law to include the appointment of any "regularly ordained minister of some religious denomination," thus eliminating the requirement that chaplains be only Christian ministers. The bill passed on 17 July 1862.

President Lincoln subsequently commissioned three rabbis to serve as army chaplains during the Civil War: Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia, Berhard Gotthelf of Louisville, and Ferdinand Sarner of Rochester.