A new book by Howard Mortman is the first to explore the long tradition of prayer in Congress and the contributions Jewish Rabbis have made to the enduring institution.
It is a little known fact outside the Washington D.C. beltway, or inside of it for that matter, but the U.S. Congress still opens each session, as it always has, with a prayer offered by an ordained chaplain of faith.
Often overlooked in the siege-tower that is Capitol Hill, unnoticed by the laudables of the Washington Post and New York Times, the prayer tradition of Congress has been quietly kept alive.
After the Rev. Jacob Duche of Christ Church first began the Philadelphia Continental Congress with a prayer in 1774, and Benjamin Franklin seconded the motion that “each session start with a prayer for heavenly help” at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, sessions of Congress have been opened with prayer.
For 160 of those years, Jewish Rabbis have been included in this group of religious and spiritual leaders who have blessed Congress. The 441 Rabbis, from 400 synagogues, and their 634 prayers are the subject of a new book that is an often heartwarming, often sobering examination of American history through the lens of Jewish Congressional prayers.
“When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill”, by Howard Mortman, is the first book of its kind. Exploring this particular niche of D.C. political life is largely uncharted territory.
“It’s a never-told story of Jewish history in America- and being able to be Jewish and pray in the center of the legislative branch, basically the center of democracy, is a milestone accomplishment in the Jewish experience,” said the author of his work.
It is also a reminder of how closely interwoven the Jewish faith is with American history. Through wars, depressions, and plague, Rabbis have been America’s faith leaders, and some of its staunchest examples of unity, forgiveness, and brotherhood.
U.S. religious leaders have blessed Congress in wartime and in peace. During times of national calamity and natural disaster; through conflict and pandemic the leaders of America’s faith institutions have blessed congressional sessions.
During 2020, there were frequent congressional prayers for COVID-19 sufferers, for a cure, for deliverance from the virus. In a prayer appropriate for all time, Rabbi Maurice Lyons in 1984 prayed that, “All our beloved Senators be granted a discerning heart”.
In addition to the prayers themselves, which are typically limited to 150 words, the book examines historical context, how the Rabbis themselves lived, who they were and the times in which they lived.
The author, in further dedication to his passionate commitment to the task of bringing the Rabbis who blessed Congress, and their prayers, to life, has also undertaken to add available recordings of the prayers themselves to youtube.
In a Sunday morning interview with Sharyl Attkisson, Howard Mortman discussed the power of the project and the Jewish families and communities his research has already begun to re-enrich.
Jewish communities in Detroit are excited to learn which famous Rabbis hailing from their city are mentioned in the book; and they aren’t alone. Unearthing this gem of Jewish American history is a unique and welcome contribution from first-time author and longtime C-SPAN communications director Howard Mortman.
“This book is very much an outgrowth of my watching Congress on TV for a living in working at C-SPAN,” said Mortman of his work on the book. “I’ve always been intrigued by the prayer that opens each session of Congress. It looks like nothing else that happens during the legislative day.”
“It’s essentially a prayer in a government setting that can be seen on national TV. I think its the only regularly-occurring nationally televised prayer. I just found that whole circumstance really interesting. The prayer is typically delivered by the chaplain. Both the House and the Senate have official, salaried chaplains. On occasion, for whatever reason, the chaplain isn’t in the chamber to deliver the prayer. And a guest chaplain fills in.”
“On even rarer occasions, that guest chaplain is a Rabbi. And being Jewish, that’s where my story begins- the Rabbis who have prayed in Congress.”
Several Rabbis from other nations have opened congressional sessions with prayer. According to the author, many of these Rabbis came from Eastern Europe- Poland, Germany, Russia. Many arrived before World War II, some after. Some of the Rabbis who have opened congressional sessions with prayer were survivors of the Holocaust; including survivors Auschwitz, who later immigrated to America and became Rabbis.
“It’s just an amazing story. Look, the ultimate triumph over Hitler is to have, you know, a Jew in front of America’s center of democracy giving prayer,” said the author in an interview on C-SPAN2 BookTV.
During the interview, one audience member asked the author: “What does it tell us about the American story?”
“For Jews, it is a great story of America,” Mortman answered. “It is the essence that there are Jewish immigrants not only from Europe but from Latin America from Cuba who have become Rabbis and come to pray in Congress. It’s a great in-gathering.”
“It’s part of the fabric of the American story of American democracy that a Rabbi can survive Auschwitz and come to America and pray at the literal center of democracy,” he continued. “To be a Rabbi at the rostrum, at the side of the Liberty Bell. For all the tension we go through as a country, the fact that this tradition has remained from the beginning- untouched- and out of it you can tell stories and read biographies and run the numbers, or just be compelled by what they say.”
“It’s a great story of America.”
It is indeed. And thanks to the intrepid research and highly-readable prose of Howard Mortman, America now has another great Jewish American story: His own.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)