Fischel, Arnold

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FISCHEL, ARNOLD (1830–1894), religious leader, historian, and advocate for the American Jewish chaplaincy. Born in Holland, Fischel began his career in 1849 as a speaker on Hebrew literature in Brighton and Portsmouth, England. He published essays on such themes as "The Cosmogony of Moses" and "The Laws of Israel as Represented by the Greeks and Romans," and translated Maimonides' Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed) from the Arabic original. In 1851, he was engaged as lecturer by the Old Hebrew Congregation of Liverpool.

In 1856, Fischel accepted the invitation of Shearith Israel of New York City, the oldest Jewish congregation in America, to become its first permanent lecturer. He was welcomed by both the Orthodox and Reform press, and was active in the Hebrew Benevolent Society, Chevra Bikur Cholim VeKadesh, and Touro Literary Institute, among others. His synagogue sermons stressed Orthodox beliefs and praised the United States as a haven for Jewish freedom. In his Thanksgiving Day sermon of 1860, he supported the Union in the Civil War as more sympathetic to the Jews than the individual states.

Fischel sought to give positive portrayals of Jewish history to Christian audiences, commencing with his address on the Holy Land to the American Geographical and Statistical Society in 1858. He established his reputation as a pioneering historian of American Jewry with his address on "the history of the Jews in America" at the New York Historical Society in 1859 and again in 1861. He correctly authenticated Medieval Spanish Jewish coins discovered in Ohio in his 1861 talk at the American Ethnographical Society.

In 1861, Congress had enacted a law requiring that all military chaplains be Christian ministers, and the first Jew to be elected a chaplain, Michael Allen, was forced to resign. As a challenge to the law, Fischel applied for a chaplaincy and was refused because of his religion. With the authorization of the (Orthodox) Board of Delegates of American Israelites, Fischel traveled to Washington, d.c., to lobby for a change in the law while serving as a civilian chaplain for Jewish soldiers in the region.

Fischel secured a meeting with President Lincoln on December 11, 1861, gained the president's support, and proceeded to lobby members of Congress. Christian views were divided between advocates of religious pluralism and Christian fundamentalists. After a broad public debate, the law was amended by Congress in July 1862 to accept chaplains of all religious denominations.

The Board of Delegates applied for a chaplaincy for Fischel, but the request was denied as unnecessary for the small number of Jewish soldiers in his region. Discouraged by this, and by a lack of support for other projects he envisioned on behalf of Jewish soldiers, Fischel returned permanently to Holland in 1864.


J. Waxman, "Arnold Fischel 'Unsung Hero' in American Israel," in: American Jewish Historical Quarterly, 60:4 (June 1971), 325–43; B.W. Korn, American Jewry and the Civil War (1951); L.M. Berkowitz, "The Rabbi of the Potomac: Rev. Dr. Arnold Fischel ז״ל," in: Torah Lives (1995); H. Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York (1945); D. and T. de Sola Pool, An Old Faith in the New World (1955).

[Mark L. Smith (2nd ed.)]