One hundred years ago this week, U.S. presidential history was made from the bima of a Pittsburgh synagogue.
It was on May 29, 1909 — a Shabbat — that President William Howard Taft, rose from his seat at Rodef Shalom Congregation, strode to the lectern and made the first known speech by any sitting U.S. president in a synagogue during a regular service.
“I esteem it a great privilege to appear before this intelligent and patriotic audience,” Taft said in his opening remarks, “at the instance of your leader, your rabbi, who was a warm friend of my predecessor (Theodore Roosevelt), and whom, I am glad to think, has transferred his friendship for the time being to me.”
He was referring to Rabbi J. Leonard Levy, who traveled to Washington prior to Taft’s trip to Pittsburgh, obtained a audience with the president, and persuaded him to add a visit to Rodef Shalom to his itinerary.
“He had pull,” Rodef Shalom archivist Martha Berg said of Levy.
The impact of the Taft speech is debatable. He spoke only for a few minutes, and announced no new policy initiative. He even committed one noticeable faux pas in his remarks when he referred to Rodef Shalom as “this beautiful church.”
But, Taft, who had frequent interaction with the Jews in Cincinnati while growing up, included in the speech a plea for religious tolerance in America.
“The prayer which we have just listened (offered by Levy before the president spoke), full of liberality and kindness and humanity, makes one feel ashamed of all narrowness and bigotry in religion,” Taft said, “and it makes me glad to say that never in the history of the country, never under any circumstances or in a crisis have the Jewish people failed to live up to the highest standard of citizenship and patriotism.”
VanBeck Hall, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, said the Taft speech jibed with Republican Party efforts at the time to attract Jewish voters.
“You could say there’s been a shift; most presidents have broader kinds of religious perceptions,” Hall said. “It starts before the Civil War with Roman Catholicism, then [Theodore] Roosevelt appoints Oscar Straus as the first Jewish member of the Cabinet (Secretary of Commerce). That, of course, was right before Taft. At the time, I think Republicans were trying to win over Jewish voters — and rather successfully until the Great Depression.”
According to news accounts, Taft came to Pittsburgh that day to speak at an alumni reception at the Associated Western Pennsylvania Yale Clubs at the Fort Pitt Hotel, but he also dedicated a fountain at Arsenal Park, ate lunch at the Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley and saw a baseball game at Exposition Park between the Pirates and the Chicago Cubs (Taft’s brother, Charles P. Taft, was a part owner of the Cubs).
Pirates owner Barney Dreyfus, a member of Rodef Shalom, “announced this afternoon that, as President Taft will be at Exposition Park either at 3:30 o’clock or a few minutes later, the game will not begin until the Chief Executive of the nation arrives,” reported the May 29, 1909, issue of The Pittsburg Press. (Pittsburgh was often spelled without an H at that time.)
At Rodef Shalom, approximately 5,000 people had gathered outside to see the president arrive, according to a news account. He entered the synagogue through a side entrance. The capacity crowd in the sanctuary watched as Taft took a seat on the bima and awaited his turn to speak. Following his address, Levy had the congregation rise to sing “America.”
“President Taft’s clear basso was heard distinctly as he joined in singing the national anthem the congregation,” one reporter wrote. After the song, Taft left the building escorted by leading members of the congregation.
Taft’s visit to the Rodef Shalom was hardly the first communication between an American president and the American Jews.
George Washington in his famous 1790 letter to Moses Seixas of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel in Newport, R.I., wrote, “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
Today, presidents, and candidates for president, frequently visit and speak at Jewish institutions. They routinely travel to Israel and appoint liaisons to the Jewish community.
Despite Taft’s reception at Rodef Shalom, the president gets mixed reviews for his presidency from Jewish historians.
He, along with other American leaders, publicly condemned Henry Ford for publishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his newspaper, the Deerborn Independent, but he angered some Jewish leaders in 1911 when he refused to cancel a treaty with Russia because of that country’s anti-Semitic activity. (Taft ultimately did abrogate the treaty after Congress passed a bill directing him to do so).
Taft also vetoed an immigration bill opposed by the Jewish community because it contained a literacy test, which could prevent Russian Jews from entering the country.
When he died in 1930, The Jewish Criterion published an article by Robert Stone giving Taft a glowing review for his relationship with the Jews.
“The late William Howard Taft’s friendship and deep understanding of Jews and Jewish problems were those of a man of high ethical caliber,” Stone wrote.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)