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President Lincoln and the Rabbi

He convinced President Lincoln to change the law.

Arnold Fischel was a 19th century rabbi who convinced President Lincoln to allow Jewish chaplains to serve in the Union army.

Born in Holland in 1830, Fischel received a well-rounded education. In addition to Judaic topics, he was well-versed in the Greek and Roman classics. He was ordained as a rabbi as a young man, and moved to England, where he had a pulpit at the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation. In 1856, Rabbi Fischel moved to the United States after being recruited by Congregation Shearith Israel in NYC.

At the beginning of the Civil War, in 1861, the Pennsylvania 5th Cavalry’s 65th Regiment elected Michael M. Allen, a Sephardic Jewish Hebrew teacher, as their regimental chaplain. At that time, U.S. law required that a military chaplain be an ordained minister of a “Christian denomination.” The U.S. Christian Commission demanded his removal, and Allen stepped down.

In response, the regimental field commanders elected another Jew to be their chaplain: Rabbi Arnold Fischel . This time the War Dept got involved. Secretary of War Simon Cameron wrote to Rabbi Fischel directly explaining that, not being Christian, he was not eligible to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. military.

The Board of Delegates of American Israelites, the first Jewish civil rights organization in the United States, got wind of the situation. They encouraged Rabbi Fischel to lobby for a change in the law, and got him an audience with President Lincoln to discuss the issue.

The meeting was a success, and Rabbi Fischel reported that Lincoln “fully admitted the justice of my remarks, and agreed that something ought to be done….” Almost immediately, Lincoln got Congress to change the word “Christian” to “religious” in the chaplain eligibility law.

The Board of Delegates appointed Fischel to serve as a civilian chaplain in the Potomac region for $20/week plus expenses. He began a study of Jews serving in the Union army and interviewed hundreds of them. He found many more Jewish soldiers than he expected. Rabbi Fischel wrote in a letter to Henry Hart, then president of the Board of Delegates, “As a general rule, they are not known as Jews, but hundreds with whom I have conversed express their anxiety and hope that some provision may be made for them, so that in case of sickness or death, they be not left to the mercy of strangers.”

Finding that the $20/week stipend was not enough for his expenses, Fischel returned to Europe. He served as a rabbi in the Netherlands until his death in 1894.

For convincing the president of the United States to allow Jewish clergy to serve as military chaplains, we honor Rabbi Arnold Fischel as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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