POTUS on the bima

Eisenhower at Washington Hebrew 2
President Dwight Eisenhower speaks at the dedication of Washington Hebrew Congregation in 1955.
Photo courtesy of Washington Hebrew Congregation

About the time that White House spokesman Eric Schultz announced that President Barack Obama would visit Adas Israel Congregation, the Secret Service showed up at the Conservative synagogue in Cleveland Park.

As the final touches are put in place for the chief executive’s address this Friday — he will speak in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month — members of the Greater Washington Jewish community are anticipating what Obama will say during a rare appearance for an American president. Obama’s visit will be the first to a U.S. synagogue by a sitting president since George W. Bush toured Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.

Adas Israel’s main sanctuary will be filled by synagogue members, politicians, rabbis and lay leaders for the pre-Shabbat address, which will coincide with “Solidarity Sabbath,” an initiative of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice that calls on world leaders to show solidarity with victims of anti-Semitism. Twelve members of Congress and a number of European ambassadors will visit synagogues on May 22 and participate in other activities to show their concern about anti-Semitism.

Adas Israel member Jeffrey Jacobovitz believes Obama’s appearance will allow the president to clear the air about his relationship with Israel and the pending nuclear agreement with Iran.


“Obama has been criticized in the Jewish community about his treatment of Israel,” Jacobovitz said. “I think he’s reaching out to the Jewish community [with his appearance]. He’s showing the Jewish community that he’s willing to appear and willing to listen.”

Congregant Ron Lapping is “proud” that Obama chose his synagogue for a speech.

“I think it’s a feather in Adas’ cap that the president would pick Adas as the place to speak about Israel in celebration of Jewish American Heritage month,” he said.

Obama will not be the first president to visit Adas Israel. In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant attended a three-hour dedication service for the synagogue’s new building at 6th and G streets NW. It was the first synagogue service attended by a president.

Grant “sat at the front of the sanctuary on a sofa rented especially for the occasion,” according to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. He was accompanied by his son Ulysses Jr. and other notables, “all retaining their hats, as was observed by the congregation,” noted The Daily Critic.

A quarter-century later, Adas Israel moved to a new home two blocks away. In that building’s later incarnation as Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, President George W. Bush took a private tour in 2005.

“He is what you would expect any successful politician to be. He was very personable and very engaging,” said Sheldon Zuckerman, the synagogue’s president, who accompanied Bush during the 40-minute visit.

Zuckerman remembers standing with the president for a long time on the bima, talking about the differences between the intimacy of Sixth & I and mega churches and synagogues.

Bush was scheduled to speak at the National Dinner Celebrating Jewish Life in America at the National Building Museum. But he was enjoying himself so much that his aides had to pull him away, Zuckerman recalled.

Bush made it to his next event. “This may sound a little odd for a Methodist from Texas saying this,” he told the audience. “But I just came from shul.”

As the community’s first synagogue, Washington Hebrew Congregation has had its share of presidential visits.

In 1897, some 3,000 onlookers watched President William McKinley place the cornerstone of the congregation’s second building at 8th and I streets, according to synagogue records.

President Harry S Truman performed the same act in 1952, when the Reform congregation relocated to its current building on Macomb Street. Three years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at the synagogue’s dedication.

Eisenhower mused that some might think it strange that a president who was a Christian should speak in a synagogue.

But, “the president of the United States, the official head of the country, is after all, the official head of a great nation that is religious in its background and has a spiritual foundation on which to stand,” Eisenhower said. “Therefore, it is entirely fitting and in keeping with his office that he should come to such a great and significant event in the lives of one part of the great faiths that have made this country what it is, to pay his respects to that faith and to this event and to the people who have made it possible.”

Washington synagogues are conveniently close for presidents who want to reach American Jews. In 1790, while in Newport, R.I., President George Washington wrote a letter to the congregants of Touro Synagogue in which he outlined his views of religious liberty in the new nation: “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 in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Speaking from the bima during a Shabbat service at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh in 1909, President William Howard Taft remarked how American Jews had lived up to their end of George Washington’s bargain.

“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,” he said.

Taft noted how the prayer the synagogue’s rabbi’s offered, “full of liberality and kindness and humanity, makes one feel ashamed of all narrowness and bigotry in religion.”

Taft was upbeat when he committed his one blunder. He referred to Rodef Shalom as “this beautiful church.”

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