NEW YORK (Sep. 8)
There was a surprise waiting for worshipers at Rosh Hashanah servies in Martha’s Vineyard this year. President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton sitting in the front row, wishing the congregants a “Shanah Tovah.”
It is believed to be the first time that a U.S. president has attended a High Holiday service.
The Clintons, who were vacationing on the island off the coast of Massachusetts, were invited by the rabbi and a prominent congregant to attend New Year’s services at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. It is the only Jewish house of worship on the island.
According to Rabbi Joshua Plaut, spiritual leader of the Reform congregation, the idea to invite the president originated with the rabbi’s mother, who lives in Jerusalem.
“She suggested that I invite the president,” said Plaut. “I didn’t think it would work, but she said it was the right thing to do, and I didn’t want to enter the new year with a guilty conscience” about not heeding his mother. So he sent the president a letter of invitation.
Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor and well-known attorney, was able to get the rabbi’s letter, along with one of his own, through to the presiden. Clinton quickly accepted the invitation.
The president and the first lady arrived at the Monday evening services promptly, although entry was slightly delayed for the congregants because of security measures.
A METAL DETECTOR AND THE SECRET SERVICE
“When we arrived for services there was a line of people waiting to get in, a metal detector and Secret Service crawling all over the place,” said attorney Martin Fox, a congregant.
The first couple sat in the front row with Dershowitz and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), also a member of the congregation.
The Clintons sang many of the prayers, including the Shema, along with the Jewish worshipers. They were able to follow along with the transliterated prayerbooks used by the congregation.
The president, who is Baptist, “honored the spirit of diversity and religious pluralism in this country with his presence,” said Plaut.
Before blowing a long blast on the shofar, the ram’s horn used throughout the High Holidays, Plaut explained to the president that a shofar is “sort of like a Jewish saxophone,” alluding to Clinton’s famous love of that instrument.
In his remarks to the president and congregation, Plaut said he “explained the significance of Rosh Hashanah as a period of repentance and renewal, the whole concept of a Book of Life and that we inscribe our own destiny as God guides our hand.
“I spoke about peace, how he will go down in Jewish history as an important contributor to peace for Israel and her neighbors.
“When Israel is at peace, Jews all over the world are at peace and I urged him to complete the comprehensive peace in the region,” said Plaut.
The president then ascended the bimah, or platform from which prayers are led, and said “there was still a lot of work ahead to make the (Israeli-Palestinian) accord work,” according to Plaut.
The congregation gave him a standing ovation.
Plaut also presented the president with a Moroccan Torah-pointer made of sterling silver and a copy of the Reform movement’s Bible, which includes commentaries by his uncle, Rabbi Gunther Plaut.
Inside the cover of the Bible, Plaut wrote a note to the president saying “he honored us with his presence, thanking him for his role in the Middle East peace agreements and wishing him luck in pursuit of his domestic agenda,” said the rabbi.
The service on the first night of Rosh Hashanah was the largest the congregation, and the island, had ever seen.
An estimated 650 worshipers — triple the number of member families — crowded into Edgartown’s Old Whaling Church, a historic local building no longer used as a church, which had been rented out by the congregation for the services.
Though the president’s plans to attend the synagogue had been kept secret until about an hour before services began, the crowd was still expected to be large.
The congregation has grown in recent years and the fact that the first night of Rosh Hashanah fell on Labor Day this year meant that many Jews extended their vacations to include the Jewish holiday.
Fox, one of the members, said he was not at all surprised that the president came to Rosh Hashanah services.
“He does everything up here, goes to all the stores and restaurants, goes sailing and fishing, and it’s a small town,” Fox explained.
“The beggest Rosh Hashanah service in the history of the island was taking place while he was here, so it made sense for him to come.”