The presidents’ rabbinical correspondent

Rabbi Edward M. Browne was a would-be military chaplain and Zionist leader.

Prophet in a time of priests (photo credit: Screenshot)
Prophet in a time of priests
(photo credit: Screenshot)
From the time Rabbi Edward M. Browne stepped up to the pulpit until his death 60 years later, he was a “spiritual entrepreneur” in the rabbinate, in Zionism, in the public sector and in the political arena.
Born Moshe Braun in Epieres, Slovakia, in 1845, he became Edward M. Browne when he immigrated to the United States in 1865, just after the Civil War, and was trained as a rabbi by Isaac Mayer Wise. From 1865 until his death in 1929, he never hesitated to create exciting solutions to problems he perceived in the US and throughout the world.
Moving from pulpit to pulpit in Savannah, Georgia, and Montgomery, Alabama, in the late 1860s and in Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1870s, Browne was clear about what he thought of his fellow rabbis who sought to replicate the Christian clergy. His prose caught them off guard.
“The American Jewish pulpit, like all professions, has its parasites, being blessed with a great number of so-called Rev. Dr... whose titles consist of a dozen or two of white cravats and a waist-coat buttoned up to the chin.” Despite this criticism of the emphasis on titles, he came to be known as “Alphabet” Browne because on his stationery his name was followed by “LLD, AM, BM, DD, MD” to demonstrate how much knowledge he had acquired.
After serving behind five pulpits, Browne decided in 1871 to write to president Ulysses S. Grant and ask for a position as a military chaplain.
Ten years earlier, Abraham Lincoln had seen to it that a law was passed permitting rabbis to be chaplains in military service.
After the Civil War, the rabbis who had served resigned from the US Army. In a letter from Browne held in Grant’s presidential archives, the writer emphasizes that because Jews have equal rights, he should be appointed chaplain at West Point. His request was denied. Four years later, in the Oval Office, Browne advised the president on ways he could improve his reputation with the Jews.
Browne maintained contact with Grant over the next decade until his death in New York in 1885, when Grant’s family asked Browne to march in the parade behind the coffin, and Browne accepted the honor. The Reform Jews of New York were shocked, feeling that one of their own leading figures should have been invited to participate. On Saturday, August 8, 1885, after a much-heated debate with the US general in charge, Browne broke all the “Jewish progressive” rules of the day. Following the funeral service, he walked 12 kilometers from the Battery to Riverside Park, where the president was interred in what is now known as Grant’s Tomb.
The author has found Browne’s letters to four other presidents: Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. He loved to offer his views to such noted individuals.
In 1897 and 1898 Browne wrote a series of letters to Theodor Herzl.
These letters carried the rabbi’s letterhead, with all the titles he had earned. Browne sent Herzl letter after letter. Ten years earlier, “Alphabet” had tried to create a Jewish state on the Chattahoochee River in Georgia and farther south along that same river in Florida.
Browne was a committed Zionist. He realized that Herzl had a potent idea and wanted to be a part of it. In his letters, he nominated himself to be treasurer for the American Zionists.
He made it clear that he could persuade the Protestants to become a part of the efforts for a Jewish state.
Of course, Herzl left Browne blowing in the wind. Browne ultimately played little part in the enterprise of the Zionist dream, but he did truly believe that a Jewish state would come into being.
“Alphabet” Browne never missed a trick via his rapid Americanization, which he wove together with his knowledge of and commitment to Judaism. His life was filled with exciting possibilities for himself and for the people he served.