Ten Questions and Ten Answers About Writing “When Rabbis Bless Congress”

Curious about how When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill came to be? Author Howard Mortman provides some insights and fascinating anecdotes about researching and writing his book in a series of commonly-asked questions and answers.

Why this story at this time?

This story is a direct result of my job as communications director for C-SPAN. I watch a lot of Congress on TV. I’ve always been intrigued by the first thing Congress does every day: pray. Both in the House and the Senate, even before they recite the pledge of allegiance, there’s a prayer. That whole tradition fascinated me—it looks like nothing else that happens during the legislative day. And because it’s on C-SPAN, on cable TV, it’s essentially a prayer in a government setting that can be seen on national TV. I think it’s the only regularly-occurring nationally televised prayer. I just found that whole circumstance really interesting. The prayer is typically delivered by the chaplain. Both the House and Senate have official, salaried chaplains. On occasion, for whatever reason, the chaplain isn’t in the chamber to deliver the prayer. And a guest chaplain fills in. On even rarer occasion, that guest chaplain is a rabbi. And being Jewish, that’s where my story begins—the rabbis who have prayed in Congress.

But what about the separation of church and state?

Yes, that question looms large over this story. And strong arguments are made on both sides—by those who say there should be no prayer in Congress and those who support it. Frankly, for the purposes of this book, I don’t really care about that debate and don’t deal with it. It’s for others. My concern is the reality of history: chronicling the well-over 400 rabbis who have delivered well-over 600 prayers in Congress. If we get caught up in whether they should have given prayers, we end up ignoring the reality that they happened, and we lose out on a lot of interesting history. My focus is who they are and what they said, not whether they should be there at all. And since prayer in Congress is a tradition that goes back to the very beginning of Congress, and has been protected in some fashion by several Supreme Court cases, it seems like it will be with us for many more years to come. And worthy of academic study.

How long did it take to write?

The concept developed over several years. The first step happened in 2014, when I made my first clip from the C-SPAN Video Library of a rabbi opening Congress in prayer. From there: more clips, research, writing a manuscript, finding the right publisher (I was fortunate Academic Studies Press “got” the concept), and then publication in October 2020. So essentially six years for the project to develop from the initial spark of interest to an actual book.

Who is this book for?

Obviously, being about rabbis, it’s a book that is of particular interest to the Jewish community. At its core, rabbis who pray in Congress, is essentially an unknown and unreported sliver of the American Jewish experience. Being the first to tackle this subject is both thrilling and daunting. But I don’t want it to be characterized as a Jewish book alone. It really is a book about Congress. A part of the history of Congress that hasn’t been deeply researched or reported. There are precious few written works about the history of prayers delivered in Congress in general (aside from any church/state debate). So Congress history lovers and junkies are the primary audience. Broader, the book should appear to people interested in religion’s place in American politics and democracy.

How did you research it?

Two main primary sources: 1) the C-SPAN Video Library for video of rabbis praying in Congress from the mid-80s on (C-SPAN began in 1979 when the U.S. House first went on TV), and 2) the Congressional Record for everything before C-SPAN. In the end, 75% of every rabbi who has prayed in Congress is mentioned in the book.

Any difficulties in researching?

When I began, accessing the Congressional Record for the old stuff was very difficult and scattershot. The Congressional Record has been online, organized, and publicly accessible for floor action starting in 1995 to the present. But not before that. Definitely not going back the first rabbi who prayed in Congress, in 1860. I found that there are paid services and some Congressional Records before 1995 randomly online, but nothing searchable or structured. Basically, you had to pay if you wanted to see what Congress said and did before 1995. That situation happily changed a few years ago when the Library of Congress began to systematically put all its Congressional Records online, decade by decade. What a great public service, and a breakthrough for my research. Then it became a matter of going through and finding all the early rabbis.

Then it got easier, right?

Well, kind of. At least all the records were there. But you still can’t simply search the word “rabbi” and out pops a book. Many of the older citations of rabbis praying in Congress didn’t say there were rabbis. Or what synagogue they were from. Some rabbis, using older custom, even called them “ministers.” And some non-rabbi ministers had some very Jewish sounding names. So what I had to do was go through every prayer ever given in Congress and see if that person of the cloth was a rabbi. (It was long and tough—but don’t feel sorry for me. I really enjoyed it. I came across some amazing Congress history, and saw non-rabbi prayers that were really history and reflected their moments in history.)

Rabbis are still giving prayers, right? Does that affect the research in the book?

I always knew going in that this would be a growing, organic story. Meaning, I would write about the first 430 rabbis who have prayed in Congress. But there would be more to come. So I’m actually eager to see more rabbis pray in Congress, if only to keep the story going post-publication and getting even more interesting. I did fear one thing, though, and that was: What would happen to the research if there were more rabbis praying between the time that I finished the manuscript and when the book was published? Indeed, many months passed—part of the normal production process—from the time I was done writing (roughly early March 2020) to when the book came out (late October 2020). What if more rabbis prayed during that interregnum, and the book would have some incorrect data because of that gap? As it turns out, during those roughly seven months, Congress had very few guest chaplains. That was because of COVID and safety precautions in the chambers. And there were zero additional rabbis. So nothing affected either the quantitative or qualitative side of the story.

What about the book itself? Is there a story behind the cover? And why is Washington Hebrew Congregation a partner?

Regarding the cover: It was designed by Kate Connolly of Kate Connolly Studio. It depicts actual rabbis giving actual prayers in Congress, taken (mostly) from C-SPAN screen grabs. Kate stylized the 16 pictures. I love the cover. It tells the story of rabbis praying in Congress beautifully. And it’s the main reason there are no pictures in the book—I didn’t want to detract from the cover imagery. When I first saw the final design I was floored—it graphically relayed my vision for the book without using a single word. It was perfect.

And Washington Hebrew Congregation is a partner in the book because, frankly, they provided resources to make it a reality. It may not surprise you that a book about rabbis praying in Congress reflects just a tiny sliver of history, a narrow niche for which there is no proven market. Between Academic Studies Press’s embrace of the book and Washington Hebrew Congregation’s support for getting it done, I was able to overcome the reality that this would be a very different kind of book from a first-time author. And having Washington Hebrew Congregation partner in the book is consistent with the story line—they have had the greatest number of rabbis pray in Congress, and every senior WHC rabbi has prayed in Congress, going back to 1876.

Did you personally learn anything? Do you have any favorite prayers?

I learned a lot about Jewish teachings from reading and listening to the rabbi prayers. I certainly learned a great deal about the overall tradition of prayer in Congress. I think I’m even more interested in the general topic than I was before I started. It is endlessly fascinating, and so few people even know it happens.

As far as favorite prayers, in general I was really intrigued by prayers that reflected their moment in history. From the vantage point of decades later, it was interesting to see such milestone events and topics as the Vietnam War, 9/11, the Civil Rights Movement, the Space Program, immigration (and the commensurate appreciation for and love for America), and so forth, reflected in the language of the prayers.

But I think my most favorite part of this project is what happened after the book was published.

I have had several rabbi guest chaplains and families of guest chaplains contact me to tell their personal story of what it like to deliver a prayer in Congress. Day-of stories and anecdotes. One family spotted a YouTube of their grandfather’s prayer—I put on YouTube every guest chaplain rabbi for whom there is video, going back to 1985—and told me they had never seen that before. What had been basically a mechanical exercise in researching, writing, and posting video suddenly became reality of a personal story that adds to the overall history. Didn’t see that coming—and I treasure it.

Howard Mortman is communications director for C-SPAN, the public service providing television coverage of the U.S. Congress. A veteran of Washington, DC, media organizations, he has observed Congress from positions at MSNBC, National Journal’s Hotline, Broadcasting Board of Governors, and New Media Strategies. He graduated from the University of Maryland.

When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill is now available from ASP or wherever you buy books.