When Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote alternative High Holidays prayers in the 1970s he never dreamed that his words would become the center of an American president’s penitent plea.
But that’s exactly what happened last week in the East Room of the White House when President Clinton opened the Reform Jewish movement’s Yom Kippur prayer book to page 372 and read what he called Riemer’s “incredible passage.”
In a telephone interview from his Boca Raton, Fla., home Riemer said he was “deeply moved and flattered” when he found out that Clinton read the entire 204-word text of “On Turning.”
“I’m moved that he found it and liked it,” Riemer said of his prayer, which compares the changing of the seasons to the process that people go through to repent. “It’s an obvious metaphor,” he said of the prayer.
“Though written a number of years ago, it sounded like it was written for this occasion,” said Riemer
Clinton would have never known of Riemer’s prayer if it was not for Ira Leesfield, a prominent Miami attorney and major Democratic contributor who gave the president a copy of the Gates of Repentance prayer book at a private gathering last week in Florida.
In a telephone interview from his law office, Leesfield said he went to Temple Beth Shalom last week to meet with his rabbi to discuss his part in the Yom Kippur service and “serendipitously” opened the prayer book to Riemer’s prayer.
“Obviously it’s very appropriate to his own self-evaluation,” Leesfield said of Clinton, so when the president came over to his house Sept. 9 to attend a small, late-night gathering of two dozen people, Leesfield gave him the prayer book with a note, “Mr. President, I think this is something you would appreciate looking at.”
Reform Jewish officials estimate that more than 700,000 Gates of Repentance prayer books, published in 1979, are being used in some 90 percent of Reform congregations in America.
When asked how he felt that Clinton read the passage, Leesfield said that he had “a strong feeling of helping” rather than a feeling of pride.
“I have a lot of pride in being Jewish. I have a lot of pride in our religion’s feeling about forgiveness and atonement,” he said, adding that he took satisfaction that the president “found it important to share with the community.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, one of some 15 rabbis at the breakfast, also expressed satisfaction in Clinton’s choice. Before the prayer breakfast began, Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, saw the book in the president’s hand and shared a moment of levity with Clinton, saying, “good choice.”
While it remains to be seen if Clinton’s words at the prayer breakfast help him win the support of the American people, at least one fan has come back to the president. Riemer’s wife, Susan, who listened in on the telephone interview, offered that she was wavering in her support of the president but “now that he’s read my husband’s prayer, I’m all for him again.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.