The right to have Jewish chaplains in the United States Army was finally achieved in the second year of the Civil War when Congress was prodded and persuaded to change the law to make this possible.
This action came about after Congressman Clement Vallandigham's bill to allow ordained rabbis to be commissioned as chaplains was defeated in July 1861. While this bill was being debated, the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry, either in defiance or ignorance of the law, elected one of their men, Michael Allen, to be the regimental chaplain.
Allen was a Philadelphia Hebrew teacher who wanted to study to become a rabbi, but instead changed his mind and became a liquor dealer. He was well liked by the Christian and Jewish soldiers in his regiment and his services and sermons reflected his mixed congregation.
While the 5th Regiment was encamped outside of Washington, D.C., a YMCA worker visited them and discovered that the regimental chaplain wasn't an ordained minister or a Christian. The YMCA worker saw the appointment of Allen as a violation of the law and of the laxity that existed in the army. Allen resigned and the regiment, under the command of Colonel Max Friedman, decided to test this law with the nomination of Rabbi Amold Fischel, an ordained rabbi and an experienced lobbyist.
The Secretary of War was compelled by law to deny the nomination and Rabbi Fischel began a year of lobbying until Congress passed another law allowing rabbis to be commissioned as army chaplains. On July 17, 1862, Congress changed the wording in the law to include the words "religious denomination" instead of "Christian denomination," and legal discrimination against Jews ended in the military. Rabbi Fischel was finally commissioned to replace Allen as the chaplain of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
Rabbi Jacob Frankel, a well known cantor of Congregation Shalom of Philadelphia, was commissioned on September 18, 1862, as the first official Jewish chaplain. He attended to the military hospitals in the Philadelphia area.
The first regimental chaplain was Ferdinand Leopold Samer, a native of Germany, who was elected by the 54th New York Volunteer Regiment. Most of the soldiers in the regiment were German-speaking. Rabbi Samer was commissioned on April 10, 1863. He was the first Jewish chaplain to be wounded and the first Jewish chaplain to go AWOL (absent without leave). He was severely wounded in Gettysburg and was hospitalized awaiting his formal discharge papers. Feeling better, however, he didn't wait for his discharge papers to arrive and left on his own to go home.
The Jewish military chaplain was created in the Civil War. It started a long tradition and legacy of brave and dedicated Jewish chaplains serving God and country.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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Last updated 12 May 2011