United States Presidents and the Jews: From George Washington to George Bush
By Tina Levitan
Who was the first President to attend a synagogue service? To receive a Torah as a gift? To name a Jew to his cabinet?
You'll find the answer to these and other curious queries in this non-partisan feature prepared by a lady who knows this subject well except who will be the first Jewish President of the United States.
GEORGE WASHINGTON was the first President to write to a synagogue. In 1790 he addressed separate letters to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, and to Mikveh Israel Congregation in Savannah, GA, and a joint letter to Congregation Beth Shalom, Richmond, VA, Mikveh Israel Philadelphia, Beth Elohim, Charleston, S. C., and Shearith Israel, New York. His letters are an eloquent expression and hope for religious harmony and endure as indelible statements of the most fundamental tenets of American democracy.
THOMAS JEFFERSON was the fist President to appoint a Jew to a Federal post. In 1801 he named Reuben Etting of Baltimore as US Marshall for Maryland.
JAMES MADISON was the first President to appoint a Jew to a diplomatic post. He sent Mordecai M. Noah to Tunis from 1813 to 1816.
MARTIN VAN BUREN was the first President to order an American consul to intervene on behalf of Jews abroad. In 1840 he instructed the U.S. consul in Alexandria, Egypt to use his good offices to protect the Jews of Damascus who were under attack because of a false blood ritual accusation.
JOHN TYLER was the first President to nominate a U.S. consult to Palestine. Warder Cresson, a Quaker convert to Judaism who established a pioneer Zionist colony, received the appointment in 1844.
FRANKLIN PIERCE was the first and probably the only President whose name appears on the charter of a synagogue. Pierce signed the Act of Congress in 1857 that amended the laws of the District of Columbia to enable the incorporation of the city's first synagogue, the Washington Hebrew Congregation.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN was the first President to make it possible for rabbis to serve as military chaplains. He did this by signing the 1862 Act of Congress which changed the law that had previously barred all but Christian clergymen from the chaplainry. Lincoln was also the first, and happily the only President who was called upon to revoke an official act of anti-Semitism by the U.S. government. It was Lincoln who cancelled General Ulysses S. Grant's "Order No. 11" expelling all Jews from Tennessee from the district controlled by his armies during the Civil War. Grant always denied personal responsibility for this act attributing it to his subordinate.
ULYSSES S. GRANT was the first President to attend a synagogue service while in office. When Adas Israel Congregation in Washington D.C. was dedicated in 1874, Grant and all members of his Cabinet were present.
RUTHERFORD HAYS was the first President to designate a Jewish ambassador for the stated purpose of fighting anti-Semitism. In 1870, he named Benjamin Peixotto Consul-General to Rumania. Hays also was the first President to assure a civil service employee her right to work for the Federal government and yet observe the Sabbath. He ordered the employment of a Jewish woman who had been denied a position in the Department of the Interior because of her refusal to work on Saturday.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT was the first President to appoint a Jew to a presidential cabinet. In 1906 he named Oscar S. Straus Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Theodore Roosevelt was also the first President to contribute his own funds to a Jewish cause. In 1919, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts while President to settle the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt contributed part of his prize to the National Jewish Welfare Board.
WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT was the first President to attend a Seder while in office. In 1912, when he visited Providence, RI, he participated in the family Seder of Colonel Harry Cutler, first president of the National Jewish Welfare Board, in the Cutler home on Glenham Street.
WOODROW WILSON was the first President to nominate a Jew to the United States Supreme Court. Standing firm against great pressure to withdraw the nomination, Wilson insisted that he knew no one better qualified by judicial temperament as well as legal and social understanding, confirmation was finally voted by the Senate on June 1, 1916. Wilson was also the first President to publicly endorse a national Jewish philanthropic campaign. In a letter to Jacob Schiff, on November 22, 1917, Wilson called for wide support of the United Jewish Relief Campaign which was raising funds for European War relief.
WARREN HARDING was the first President to sign a Joint Congressional Resolution endorsing the Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate supporting the establishment in Palestine of a national Jewish home for the Jewish people. The resolution was signed September 22, 1922.
CALVIN COOLDIGE was the first President to participate in the dedication of a Jewish community institution that was not a house of worship. On May 3, 1925, he helped dedicate the cornerstone of the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community center.
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