History hobbyist pens book on the rabbis who’ve led prayers in Congress

Howard Mortman
Howard Mortman is the author of “When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill.” (Courtesy of Howard Mortman)

By Eric Schucht

More than 400 rabbis have led opening prayers in Congress, and Howard Mortman can tell you about them all. In the dead of night as his family slept, Mortman pored over congressional records, looking up every single prayer ever given in the House and Senate to find the ones led by rabbis. Mortman’s quest took six years.

“This is going to sound weird, [but] it really was for fun,” said Mortman, 54. “Everybody needs a hobby. Some people do stamp collecting. Others do coin collecting. I track rabbis who pray in Congress.”

In October, Mortman published “When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill.” Since 1789, the House and Senate have employed a chaplain to begin each day’s proceedings with a prayer. Occasionally, a guest chaplain fills in. And 635 times, Mortman said, those guest prayers have been made by a rabbi.

“When Rabbis Bless Congress” tells who these rabbis were and, with a captive audience, what they had to say to the nation’s lawmakers.

“In many ways these stories reflect the melting pot of all the different American Jewish stories,” Mortman said. “You can glean stories from their prayers that reflect that moment in time. So prayers that were given during the Vietnam War reflect our troops overseas. Prayers that were given after 9/11 reflect that moment of fear and fighting back against terror.”

No rabbi was asked to speak in Congress until the eve of the Civil War. And he said no. Rabbi Solomon Lansburgh of Washington Hebrew Congregation was invited, but the rabbi, a native German speaker, didn’t believe he was fluent enough in English to address Congress.

So Lansburgh recommended Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall, of New York. On Feb. 1, 1860, when the House was choosing a speaker, he stood before the representatives and addressed God: “Thou who makest peace in Thy high heavens, direct their minds this day that they may, with one consent, choose the man who, without fear and without favor is to preside over their assembly.”

Newspapers took notice of the historical first. Raphall’s prayer was the lead story in the Alexandria Gazette on Feb. 9, 1860, and was reported in the New York Times and Philadelphia Press.

In his book, Mortman groups together rabbis with similar backgrounds. Six were Auschwitz survivors, including Rabbi Laszlo Berkowitz, founding rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., where Mortman is a member. Fifty-five served in the military.

Only 14 of the 441 rabbis who prayed with Congress were women. The first was Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the United States. She offered a prayer in the House on Oct. 23, 1973, the same day the first article to impeach President Richard Nixon was offered.

Mortman didn’t plan to write a book at first. Initially, it was curiosity that drove him. He is director for communications at C-SPAN, which televises raw footage of the Senate and House floors.

“I basically watch C-SPAN for a living,” he said.

Over the years, Mortman developed a fascination with the opening prayer.

“It looks like nothing else that happens throughout the day,” he said. “There’s no partisan rancor. There’s no arguing. It’s a straightforward kind of a unifying moment.”

Mortman said he took notice whenever a rabbi led prayer. In 2014, he started keeping track on a spreadsheet, like a sports fanatic tracking player stats. He documented their names, synagogues, hometowns and other details. His curiosity eventually led him to delve into the history of the tradition. He searched through C-Span’s video archive, which dates back to 1979, and looked through Congressional Records, the official record of the proceedings and debates of Congress. The Library of Congress has made a vast majority of these records available to search online for free, which Mortman said enabled him to conduct research from his computer at home.

Mortman had always dreamed of writing a book, but he never knew on what. After he saw that little had been written about the history of prayer in Congress, it dawned on him that this was the book he was meant to write.

“The exciting part was doing something that no one’s ever done before. The frightening part was, I hope I get it right,” Mortman said.

Mortman said he aimed to appeal to any history lover. Studying this history can help people better understand the intersection of religion and government.

“In my opinion, this is a part of Congress that just deserves more attention and interest,” he said. “This book is the story of hundreds of rabbis who have opened Congress with prayer, stories that have never been told before. Rabbis who have never gotten the attention I think they deserve.”

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