'The Sweet Singer of Israel' Became the Army's First Jewish Chaplain

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Jacob Frankel ca. 1870
Jacob Frankel ca. 1870

One year after Congress stipulated that Army chaplains be Christians, Abraham Lincoln appointed the Army's first Jewish chaplain.

Nicknamed the "sweet singer of Israel," Rabbi Jacob Frankel was the vastly popular rabbi and cantor of Philadelphia's Congregation Rodeph Shalom. A native of Bavaria, Frankel came from a musical family and was already an accomplished cantor when he acceded to the Philadelphia post.

In 1861, Congress ordered each regiment to secure a military chaplain, who "must be a regular ordained minister of a Christian denomination." This distressed Jewish groups, and one of them, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, sent Rabbi Arnold Fischel (who had been acting unofficially as a military chaplain) to Washington.

Fischel persuaded Lincoln, who persuaded Congress to amend the law. Henceforth, military chaplains would be "regularly ordained ... of some religious denomination." This was, Bertram W. Korn writes in the book "American Jewry and the Civil War," the first federal victory for American Jews.

Almost as soon as the law changed, the Board of Ministers of the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia requested a Jewish hospital chaplain. Philadelphia was becoming "a central depository for sick and wounded soldiers," and two soldiers of Jewish faith had already died without benefit of clergy.

Frankel's fellow clergymen nominated the popular rabbi, and Lincoln signed the commission on Sept. 18, 1862. For three years, he acted as Army chaplain, singing, chanting and praying with soldiers.

Frankel continued to serve Rodeph Shalom (today the oldest active Ashkenazic synagogue in the United States) as a cantor while he served the military in the Army of the Potomac. But he so cherished his military experience, Korn writes, that he framed his commission and hung it on the wall of his home.

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