In honor of Presidents Day, Jewish Treats presents a quick look at the relationship of President William Howard Taft (1857 - 1930) and the Jewish people.
Taft’s presidency (1909 - 1913) overlapped the era of massive Jewish immigration, when Jews from Eastern European and Russian Jews came to America seeking freedom and fortune. Familiar with the Jewish community from his Cincinnati (Ohio) childhood, Taft was very receptive to the community’s needs.
Early in his presidency, Taft made his first mark on American Jewish history when he spoke during a synagogue service at Rodef Shalom Temple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 29, 1909 (and accidentally referred to the building as a “beautiful church”).
Taft’s most significant contribution to Jewish history was the abrogation of a treaty with Russia because of Russia’s treatment of Jews. Not only were Russian Jews being persecuted, but Russia was prohibiting American Jews from entering Russia, which was contrary to the Russo-American Treaty of 1832. Taft’s decision came after significant lobbying. In November 1911, Taft met with a delegation of the American Jewish Committee, and he signed the bill abrogating the treaty on December 20, 1911.
While in the White House, Taft had several significant meetings with influential representatives of the Jewish community, including Sears chairman and renowned philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and the leading contemporary Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Silver.
In January 1913, Bnai Brith presented Taft with a gold medal, and one week later he spoke at the organization’s 70th dinner anniversary at Temple Beth-El in New York City.
Following his time in office, Taft (who later served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) remained an advocate for, and admirer of, the Jewish people.
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