A Presidential Visit
"President Grant, his son Ulysses, Jr., Vice President Ferry, Rev. Dr. J.P. Newman, ... and other prominent personages came in and were assigned to seats near the ark, all retaining their hats, as was observed by the congregation."
The Daily Critic, June 10, 1876
"This is the first instance in the history of American Judaism, of the President and Vice-President of the United States attending conjointly the consecration of a Synagogue, and it is worthy of record on this Centennial year of our beloved country."
The Jewish Messenger, June 16, 1876
When the city's first Jewish congregation reformed its religious practices, some members decided to form their own congregation, Adas Israel. On June 9, 1876—just in time for the nation's centennial celebration—Adas Israel dedicated a new synagogue at the corner of 6th and G Streets, NW.
President Ulysses S. Grant came to the three-hour dedication service, becoming the first president to attend a synagogue service (President George Washington did indeed visit the Touro synagogue in Newport, RI, in 1781, but for a town meeting, rather than a service.). President Grant sat at the front of the sanctuary on a sofa rented especially for the occasion. Grant's attendance reflects the unique relationship between the Washington, D.C., Jewish community, and national leaders
Adas Israel sent President Grant a receipt for his $10 donation ($200 today) to the synagogue's building fund. The presence of Grant and other dignitaries lent special significance to the prayer for the country recited during the service.
Grant's attendance may also have served as an act of contrition.
In 1862, as a Civil War general, Grant had issued General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jews "as a class" from the Department of the Tennessee, an area under his command that included parts of southern Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Blaming Jewish traders for the black market sale of southern cotton across Union lines, Grant gave Jewish men, women, and children 24 hours to leave. Hundreds of angry letters, many from B'nai B'rith chapters, reached President Abraham Lincoln's desk. Lincoln immediately rescinded the order.
As president (1869-1877), Grant worked to mend his relationship with American Jews. He protested mistreatment of Jews in Romania and Russia, and appointed Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, Grand Master of B'nai B'rith, as Consul to Bucharest, Romania.
General Orders No. 11 dogged Grant's presidential campaigns. This cartoon shows the order's impact. It contrasts a Grant speech deploring Russian anti-Semitism wth his Civil War order. Grant's wife remembered he spoke of "that obnoxious order," but Grant never publicly apologized.