USA: On This Day in 1909 President Taft Went to Synagogue
by Samuel D. Gruber
(expanded May 29, 2016)
(ISJM) Now that presidential election season is already upon us,it is important to remember that pandering for votes has long been a staple of American politics - and democracy. Today is the anniversary of President William Howard Taft's visit to Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh in 1909, a brief but historic moment in the relationship between presidents and American Jews. 5,000 people waited for Taft to arrive for a brief stop in the busy day, and he entered the sanctuary and spoke for just ten minutes. But it was the very first time an American president had spoken from the bimah in the midst of Jewish service rather than at some ceremonial event, such as a synagogue dedication.
Just this week President Barack Obama gave a speech celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. (Watch the speech here). Now it is noteworthy but not uncommon when presidents go to synagogues. A recent blogpost by Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington curator Zachary Levine lists many of the visits of sitting presidents to synagogues in that city. Ulysses S. Grant attended the dedication of the new Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC in 1876. In 1898 President McKinley attended the cornerstone laying of Washington Hebrew Congregation at 8th & I Streets, NW. McKinley also attended Passover Sabbath eve services at
Congregation Bnai Jeshurun, in Paterson, New Jersey in 1900. Harry Truman helped lay the cornerstone at Washington Hebrew Congregation’s new building at Massachusetts & Macomb Streets, NW. in 1952 and his successor Dwight Eisenhower spoke at the dedication in 1955.
Elsewhere, in 1963 President Lyndon Johnson spoke at the dedication of Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, where his good friend and adviser Jim Novy was an active member. Johnson's close relation with the synagogue and the Austin Jewish community is described in a 2013 Tablet Magazine article by Cathy Schechter. As Vice-President, Johnson lent his Lincoln Continental convertible to carry the Torah scrolls to the new suburban synagogue.
But when Taft spoke in Pittsburgh, it was a time of massive Jewish immigration to America, but also growing anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiment in the country. The Reform movement championed the idea of the American ":melting pot," and Taft spoke of about religious tolerance at Rodef Shalom, one of Reform's oldest outposts. The new building, recently completed to designs of Henry Hornbostel, also architect of the nearby Carnegie Technical Schools (today's Carnegie Mellon University), was the already the third home of the congregation which was founded in 1860.
President Taft emphasized his intention to be the President of all the American people: “I esteem it a great privilege to appear before this intelligent and patriotic audience,” said Taft said “at the instance of your leader, your rabbi, who was a warm friend of my predecessor (Theodore Roosevelt), and whom, I am glad to think, has transferred his friendship for the time being to me.” Rabbi Levy had traveled to Washington and persuaded him to add a visit to Rodef Shalom Congregation to his itinerary.
He continued "The prayer which we have just listened, full of liberality and kindness and humanity, makes one feel ashamed of all narrowness and bigotry in religion, and it makes me glad to say that never in the history of the country, never under any circumstances or in a crisis have the Jewish people failed to live up to the highest standard of citizenship and patriotism.” Following the president's remarks, Levy had the congregation rise to sing “America.”
Rodef Shalom archivist Martha Berg tells the story of the visit here .
Read more about Taft's visit at: The Jewish Chronicle - Centennial of historic speech at Rodef Shalom.
For more historic photos see Rodef Shalom Congregation Photograph Collection, 1900 - present.
For further information about the history of Rodef Shalom consult the congregations excellent archives maintained by archivist Martha Berg who so kindly shared many of the congregation's remarkable holdings when I visited last fall. The Archives collects, preserves, and makes available for a variety of uses the institutional records of the congregation, the oldest and largest Reform Jewish congregation in Western Pennsylvania. The Archives is open to the public by appointment.