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The Jewish Chaplaincy Controversy

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(Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum, 1970.)

“The American tradition of the military chaplaincy is as old as the United States itself. Clergymen served with the armies of the individual colonies almost from the first battle of the Revolution, and provisions for the payment of chaplains were enacted by the Continental Congress as early as 1775. The first regular army chaplain was commissioned in 1781. From then on, post and brigade chaplains were an accepted feature of the army table of organization. These chaplains were all Protestants, though of varying denominations.”

It was not until the Mexican War (1846-1848) that Catholic priests were allowed to serve as chaplains, albeit in a civilian capacity until the Civil War, when they were given the right to serve as army officers.

There apparently was no consideration of Jews serving as chaplains until the Civil War. Indeed, Jews were actually banned from serving as chaplains in the Union Army by the Volunteer Bill, which stipulated that a regimental chaplain had to be a “regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination.” However, on July 12, 1861 Democratic Congressman Clement J. Vallandigham from Ohio suggested that the phrase “religious society” be substituted for “Christian denomination.”

“His peers – some of whom considered Vallandigham a near traitor – were unpersuaded, and the original language became law. By contrast, there was no legal obstacle to the appointment of Jewish chaplains in the South, nor was there any attempt to commission a Jewish chaplain in the Confederate army.”

In September 1861, less than three months after the House had refused to sanction the service of Jewish chaplains, a YMCA worker happened to visit the military camp in Virginia where the 65th Regiment of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry, popularly known as “Cameron’s Dragoons,” was temporarily stationed. He was horrified to discover that a Jew, one Michael Allen of Philadelphia, was serving as the regimental chaplain, and promptly began such an agitation in the public press that ultimately the Assistant Adjutant General of the Army, George D. Ruggles, was forced to state in writing his official warning that “any person mustered into service as a chaplain, who is not a regularly ordained clergyman of a Christian denomination, will be at once discharged without pay or allowance.”

As a result, Allen resigned his commission rather than be dishonorably discharged. It should be noted out that Allen had been appointed to his position without any intention by his regiment to disobey the law. In fact, they were probably unaware of the stipulation in the Volunteer Bill that an army chaplain had to be a Christian. However, given that the regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Max Friedman, as well a many of its officers and 1,200 men were Jewish, Allen was a logical choice.

Allen, moreover, had been a very fitting choice for the office. Born in Philadelphia on November 24, 1830, he was, from childhood, a pupil of the Rev. Isaac Leeser, and for a time he undertook to follow, under his rabbi’s guidance, a regular course of study for the Jewish ministry. In 1850-1, he took a formal course of study in Shulhan Aruch with Rabbi Max Lilienthal in New York, and was granted a certificate as Haber (Fellow in Jewish Studies) by him on March 22, 1851. Even after he abandoned this ambition, he remained close to Jewish affairs and preserved his relationship with Leeser. He taught classes for the Philadelphia Hebrew Education Society, and substituted for Leeser as Hazan (Cantor) in the conduct of services, when that frequent traveler was out of town. The Rev. Samuel M. Isaacs, editor of The Jewish Messenger, wrote a few years later that Allen was “the only gentleman not actually a minister, accustomed and able to read the entire ritual according to the Portuguese minhag [rite]. He really deserves credit for the alacrity with which he has always responded to … calls [to act as Hazan], having frequently officiated at the Franklin street and Seventh street Synagogues of Philadelphia, and occasionally at the 19th street Synagogue of N.Y.” As a layman, Allen took a further leading role in Jewish communal affairs, and served as secretary to both the United Hebrew Beneficial Society and the Hebrew Education Society.

Surely there was no one in the entire regiment better equipped by training as well as inclination to serve as its chaplain. During the two months of his service, Allen was not a Jewish chaplain, but the regimental chaplain for men of all faiths. On the New Year, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles, as well as on the Jewish Sabbath, he went to Washington or Philadelphia to attend services. But on Sundays, he held non-denominational services, consisting of brief Scriptural readings and a hymn or two, as well as a sermon.

The Struggle for a Jewish Chaplaincy

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About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.


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