Lincoln and the Jews: The Untold Story

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One aspect of Lincoln's presidency — and his life — that has not received much scrutiny is the number of Jews he counted as friends and who influenced his presidency. 

President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated 150 years ago, is known for a litany of contributions to American history: preventing the nation from being torn asunder; emancipating the slaves; even introducing the contrarian management concept of employing a “team of rivals” to produce results. 
 
One aspect of his presidency — and his life — that has not received much scrutiny is the number of Jews he counted as friends and who influenced his presidency. Among them: Rabbi Benjamin Szold, father of the founder of Hadassah; Isaac Leeser, a Philadelphia-based rabbi who was the pioneer of the Jewish pulpit in the United States and founder of the Jewish press in America; and Isaac Mayerwise, founder of the Reform movement. 
 
Jonathan Sarna, who is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, will discuss these relationships, as well as his book, Lincoln and the Jews, whcih he co-authored with Benjamin Shapell, at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City on Nov. 10. He is also the president of the Association for Jewish Studies and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
 
“I think there’s a certain longing for what Lincoln represented in Jewish circles,” Sarna said.  
 
Lincoln had more than 100 Jewish friends and associates, Sarna said. “That very much speaks to the growing presence of Jews in America,” he elaborated. “America would be a different place today if Lincoln had not worked with members of the Jewish community.”
 
Lincoln and the Jews is Sarna’s latest exploration of Civil War-era America and the Jews who lived during that time, following his 2012 book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews. In that book, Sarna wrote about how, in December of 1862, Grant ordered the expulsion of all Jews in his military district, comprising areas of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. This was part of a Union campaign against a black market in Southern cotton, which Grant thought was being run “mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders.”  
 
However, Lincoln overturned Grant’s decree on Jan. 17, 1863. During his campaign for the presidency in 1868, Grant said he had issued the order without prejudice against Jews, but as a way to address a problem that certain Jews had caused.
 
Lincoln also created the precedent for Jews to become chaplains in the Army, which was originally designated solely for Christians. On Sept. 18, 1862, he named Rabbi Jacob Frankel, a cantor of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, as the first official Jewish chaplain.
 
“The private Lincoln turned out to be as impressive as the public Lincoln,” said Sarna.  
 
The book also talks about Lincoln’s podiatrist, Isachar Zacahrie, who was Jewish. In additions to helping Lincoln with his feet, the president used him as a spy, and he was able to help free Jews who were held captive in New Orleans after the Civil War.  
 
“It tells you a lot about Lincoln, who really did treat Jews as equals,” he said. “How Lincoln promoted the Jews in the fabric of American life transformed them from outsiders to insiders.”
Sarna said Lincoln’s relationships with Jewish people stands out compared to his predecessor President James Buchanan and his successor President Andrew Johnson, who were both viewed as anti-Semitic. He said many readers have been surprised at how dedicated Lincoln was to the Jewish community. 
 
Associate Rabbi Jill Maderer of Rodpeh Shalom said she has always had an interest in American Jewish history and, because the first Jewish chaplain was from her shul, she felt it was appropriate for the synagogue to host an event about Lincoln. In a neat bit of symmetry, Sarna was also her academic adviser when she attended Brandeis University in the late 1990s.  
 
“I think we hope to learn a deeper sense of history,” the rabbi said. “I find it very interesting how Lincoln connected with Jews. I think as a man that was before his time, he was able to see beyond the difference.” 
 
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