By Joseph Frager, MD
President Trump’s historic visit to the Western Wall on May 22 this year gave us pause to ponder the importance of presidential visits to Jewish holy sites. It also raises the question of why President Trump was the first sitting president ever to visit the Western Wall.
Anyone who studies the Pan-Arabism of the State Department knows the answer. It was a real breath of fresh air to see a president of the United States standing in front of the Jewish people’s holy site. The implications were far-reaching and dramatic. The Western Wall was left as a testimonial remnant by the brutal Emperor Titus 2,000 years ago to show the world the greatness of the Roman Empire and the defeat of the Jews. It was meant to mark our destruction. Titus never expected that a president of the United States would one day visit the site of Titus’s treachery and barbarism.
This may well have been one of President Trump’s crowning achievements in his first year in office. It declared to the world that after 2,000 years, the Jewish people are here to stay. It also raised the possibility that the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash is on the horizon. I have always maintained that with the right president of the United States, this could occur. In talking to all future presidential candidates, I have always made sure that this is part of the discussion. All should remember that this was how the Second Temple got built, although I fully understand that the Third Temple shall be everlasting and the process might be vastly different.
The visit to the Western Wall by President Trump raised the question in my mind of just how many presidents have visited synagogues during their time in office. It carries with it great symbolic significance and meaning. The most memorable visit in my lifetime was by President Ronald Reagan to Ambassador David Friedman’s father’s synagogue, Temple Hillel in Woodmere, in 1984. The ambassador’s father was a Conservative rabbi who fully supported Israel’s right to build in and develop Judea and Samaria. I remember well the time he was honored by Eugen Gluck at the Bet El dinner.
At Temple Hillel, President Reagan made some very important statements. I have quoted only a few here. “You know, when you talk about human life, I think that means seeing that the immeasurable pain of the Holocaust is never dehumanized, seeing that its meaning is never lost on this generation or any future generation, and, yes, seeing that those who take our place understand: never again. The ideals of our country leave no room whatsoever for intolerance, for anti-Semitism, or for bigotry of any kind—none. And let’s not kid ourselves, the so-called anti-Zionists that we hear in the United Nations is just another mask in some quarters for vicious anti-Semitism.”
Unfortunately, only a handful of presidents visited synagogues during their tenures in office, and even fewer attended an actual service. I explained this to former governor Mike Huckabee after he attended a service and then spoke to about 1,000 people after the Mussaf prayer at the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Beverly Hills on September 2 this year.
President George Washington visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1781, but it was for a town meeting rather than an actual prayer service.
President Ulysses S. Grant attended a three-hour prayer service in 1876 at the Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC. The Jewish Messenger wrote, “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.” President Grant might have done this as an act of penitence for having issued General Order No. 11 during the Civil War which expelled all Jews “as a class” from parts of Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi for allegations of selling cotton across Union lines. President Lincoln immediately rescinded the order.
In 1897, President William McKinley attended the laying of a cornerstone at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge spoke during the cornerstone-laying ceremony of the Jewish Community Center at 16th and Q Streets in DC. In 1952, President Truman attended the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Washington Hebrew Congregation. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at the dedication of the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s new building. In 2005, President George W. Bush visited the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. In 2015, President Barack Obama visited the Adas Israel Synagogue.
We hope and pray that President Trump will also visit a synagogue in America as a show of solidarity and support. It would do us all a world of good.