Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Presidents and Synagogues

Presidents and Synagogues

The blog has been quiet this past week as I have been traveling in Poland and Ukraine, speaking at two conferences and having almost round-the-clock meetings and site and exhibition visits. I found simultaneous participation and blogging impossible. I don't know how those bog-on-the spot political correspondents do it (well, I guess they observe and follow the pack instead of act and think independently). But now I can catch up. You’ll be hearing more about in the days to come.

But for now, I want to write in the spirit of American election day. What does the election have to do with Jewish monuments …except that candidates have been feverishly courting Jewish votes and money? Well, for one thing, there is a long association of presidents and synagogues.

As early as 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant attended the dedication of Washington, DC’s first permanent house of worship: Adas Israel. That building, moved to 3rd and G Streets, N.W., and restored is now a Jewish museum run by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. It is reported that President Grant was seated on a small sofa near the front of the sanctuary during the dedication on June 9, 1876, and that he stayed for the entire service (unlike many congregant who left early). Grant, who despite anti-Jewish policies as a Civil War general, was popular with Jews as president. He entertained Jews at the White House and appointed Jews to Federal jobs. He also made a donation of $10 to the synagogue.

More recently, presidents make a point of visiting synagogues at home and abroad. George W. Bush visited the restoration of the Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, Russia on May 27, 2002. He also praised the Chabad Lubavitch leadership there, helping to secure support from the Lubavitch and other Hasidic Jews in the United States. In Washington, DC, Bush visited on September 14, 2005, another former Adas Israel building, now the restored Historic Synagogue at 6th and I Streets.

I assume the list of presidential visits to synagogues to be quite long. Likewise, the tradition of royalty in Europe visiting synagogues became popular in the emancipated 19th century and continues today. I invite my readers to contribute instances of visits where politics and Judaism sit side by side in the synagogue.

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