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This Month in Jewish History: 11 Tevet

Changing American Law to Allow Jewish Military Chaplains

Sivan Livnat

In 1861, upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Congress adopted a bill allowing each regiment to appoint their own Christian-ordained chaplain but prohibiting non-Christians from serving as military chaplains. Soon thereafter, the YMCA (under whose authority military chaplains worked at the time) discovered that Michael Allen, a Jew, had been elected from the Pennsylvania 5th Calvary’s 65th Regiment to become its chaplain. To avoid a disgraceful military dismissal, Allen resigned from his post. Although he was not an ordained rabbi, Allen was well-versed in Jewish minhag and taught at the Philadelphia Hebrew Education Society. 

Instead of simply giving up after Allen’s resignation, the same regiment elected Rabbi Arnold Fischel, a Dutch immigrant serving as the rabbi of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, to test the constitutionality of the religiously-discriminatory law. By electing Rabbi Fischel, the officers of the regiment created a situation that only challenged the religious qualification and not the ordination qualification of the chaplaincy law. 

Secretary of War Simon Cameron rejected Rabbi Fischel’s appointment as violating the same law, which specified that the chaplain must be “of some Christian denomination.” In response to the rejection, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites invited Rabbi Fischel to lobby with them to change the language of the law that led to his rejection. Throughout his lobbying, Rabbi Fischel met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss the situation. Rabbi Fischel wrote about his meeting with Lincoln, writing that the president “fully admitted the justice of my remarks … and agreed that something ought to be done to meet this case.” 

Although the case was never brought to court, Rabbi Fischel ultimately succeeded in changing the wording of the law from “Christian” to “religious” only seven months after his meeting with President Lincoln, which had occurred on the 11th of Tevet. This resulted in appointing more Jewish chaplains in the future. 

After the law changed, two Jewish chaplains were installed in the Union Army, Rabbi Jacob Frankel in Philadelphia and Rabbi Ferdinand Leopold Sarner in New York. Now, after over 150 years, there are 11 active-duty Jewish chaplains serving in the US Army. 

In historian Bertram Korn’s opinion, Rabbi Fischel’s “patience and persistence, his unselfishness and consecration … won for American Jewry the first major victory of a specifically Jewish nature . . . on a matter touching the Federal government.”

In a similar case involving Jews and the US military, the Supreme Court ruled against the Jewish plaintiff, but once again, after much lobbying, Congress amended the law. In Goldman v. Weinberger, the Court ruled that  Jewish officers were denied the right to wear religious head coverings while in uniform; two years later, in 1988, Congress enacted legislation to allow “neat and conservative” religious head coverings. 

These religious victories display the great importance of advocating for one’s rights. The United States Constitution guarantees the “free exercise” of any religion and prohibits the “establishment” of a state religion. Under these protections, Jews have been able to flourish in America. It is incumbent on us to exercise our legal rights to ensure this continues.

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