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The Jewish Chaplaincy Controversy

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Allen’s removal as a “Jewish chaplain” to his regiment soon became public knowledge, and the Jewish community and the regiment decided to push this issue. It was clear that the objection to having a Jewish chaplain was discriminatory; nonetheless, the objection to Allen serving as a chaplain because he was not a rabbi was valid.

Immediately, the regiment defiantly elected another Jew, Rabbi Arnold Fischel of Shearith Israel in New York, as their chaplain. Fischel applied to the War Department for a commission. His application was rejected since granting it would have been contrary to the law. The issue was clear-cut. Jewish periodicals wrote strong editorials demanding equal treatment of Jews, and rabbis called attention to the issue from pulpits throughout the North. Petitions were circulated and protests were made. The Board of Delegates of American Israelites, the only Jewish national organization at the time, asked Rabbi Fischel to serve the Jewish units and hospital patients in the Washington area, and to lobby for a change in the law.

Rabbi Fischel met with President Lincoln who promptly recognized the unfairness of the law and submitted a list of changes in the chaplaincy law to the Committee on Military Affairs of the House of Representatives. During the time that Congress was considering the President’s recommendations, Rabbi Fischel was not idle: he served unofficially as chaplain visiting the troops; comforted the sick and wounded; conducted services in the Washington area; visited congressmen and senators to explain the Jewish position…. Rabbi Fischel labored valiantly to neutralize this opposition – and with success. The new regulation stipulated that “No person shall be appointed a Chaplain in the Army who is not a regularly ordained minister of some religious denomination and who does not present testimonials of his good standing as such minister, with a recommendation for his appointment as an Army Chaplain from an authorized ecclesiastical body or not less than five accredited ministers belonging to said denomination.” [“The American Jewish Chaplaincy” by Louis Barish, American Jewish Historical Quarterly, Sep 1962-Jun 1963; 52, 1-4; AJHS Journal]

This change in the law was important for two reasons: (1) it created the foundation for a Jewish ecclesiastical endorsing agency to be recognized by the government, and (2) it authorized the appointment of Jewish chaplains.

Surprisingly, Reverend Fischel never became a chaplain. The reasons for this will be discussed in next month’s column.

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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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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