Behind the Headlines: on Wednesday, the Rabbi Led Prayers in the House

When the House of Representatives’ chaplain, James Ford, learned that Abner Mikva’s daughter was studying to be a rabbi, he suggested that she lead the lawmakers in their daily opening prayer.

That was about six years ago.

This week, Rabbi Rachel Mikva took to the House floor, where her father, also President Clinton’s counsel, once debated as a Democratic representative from Illinois.

Mikva, 34, was well-received and found familiar faces in the hall.

Rep. John Porter (R-III.), who nominated her to speak, now holds the seat her father once held and is a longtime family friend. And she and Lori Myers, the daughter of Rep. John Myers (R-Ind.), have been friends since childhood.

“We always remember that little Rachel, so proud today as we join the Mikva family and their grandchildren and welcome Rachel,” Myers said Wednesday on the House floor.

Mikva, who serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, III., recited a prayer titled “For the Sake of Heaven.”

“God, we pray that our words and our deeds may be for your sake, bringing healing to our world and wholeness to all those whose lives we touch,” she said.

In a telephone interview later in the day from her father’s Washington home, Mikva said: “It was an honor to offer the opening prayer, and I feel I received a very warm welcome from my father’s colleagues and former colleagues.”

“It was beautiful,” said Ford. “This is one of the longest standing invitations and we finally were able to do it.”

Mikva’s parents, her husband, Mark, and her two children Jacob, 6, and Keren, 4, accompanied her.

The rabbi is one of about 30 guest clergy members chosen to give the House opening prayer each year, Ford said.

Legislators nominate clergy they want to speak, and the chaplain’s office tries to schedule them. It can take as long as a year for a nominee to be scheduled.

As long as the clergy member represents their congregation and their religion’s tradition, they are accepted, he said.

A nomination can be canceled if the session ends before the nominee is scheduled or if the member who nominated the individual leaves his or her seat, Ford said.

The chaplain’s office does not keep track of the faiths of those who lead the opening prayer, he said.

Although prayer in schools is banned, the Supreme Court has sanctioned legislative prayer, said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’s legal department.

“Congress needs it, the schools don’t,” Stern joked, adding that the high court has allowed congressional prayer for two reasons.

The first is historical. The day after the forefathers wrote the Establishment Clause separating church and state, they hired their first chaplain, Stern said.

Also, Congress is made up of adults who can walk out of the room if they do not want to hear the prayer.

Prayer in school can be coercive because children are “young and impressionable,” he said.

NEXT STORY