For years now, Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes has convened a group of people — congregants, Jews from around the area, and local politicians, some Jewish, some not — to listen to him read the Gettysburg Address every Presidents Day.
It’s happening again this year. (See box.)
Before the pandemic, the reading happened at a full old-school Conservative morning minyan, a straightforward include-everything-out-loud Shacharit service and the Torah reading. It would also include a few lines, maybe a paragraph or two, from an American statesman or politician; often those readings would be done by one of the local politicians.
Then, after the Torah reading was complete — and it was always that week’s Torah reading, all entirely standard — but before it was returned to the ark, Rabbi Prouser would read what sounded like the haftarah, although of course there is no haftarah reading on a regular weekday.
But it wouldn’t really be a haftarah. The words would be different — prophetic, yes, but from a much more recent prophet — although the trope would be standard haftarah trope. It would be the Gettysburg Address, which Rabbi Prouser had translated to Hebrew.
After the pandemic, Rabbi Prouser changed the format. He no longer reads the Address during a morning minyan. Instead, he invited the same community members and dignitaries who used to go to the service to a breakfast instead. At first, it was a way of keeping people seated at big round tables, farther apart than they’d been when they sat in narrow wooden pews. It also was a way to shorten the amount of time that the just-post-covid gathering would take.
(Temple Emanuel, which began in Paterson, moved to Franklin Lakes in 2008. Its building, just across the road from the Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve, began its life as a Dutch Reform church; as makes sense, given its provenance, it’s beautiful but in an austere way. Which is to say that its pews are picturesque but not particularly comfortable.)
Now, though, it is clear that the new format feels less formidably inaccessible to guests, particularly the non-Jewish ones, and that makes it easier for them to be open to the emotional power of the Address.
And there is a great deal of emotional power to it. There’s something about the terse propulsion of the Gettysburg Address, the way it uses few words to push both its literal and its more abstract meaning forward together, the way it gallops, that fits the Hebrew and makes it mesmerizing even to people who do not understand the language.
Rabbi Prouser is an American history buff, so he’s been fascinated by Lincoln for as long as he can remember. But the last few years of the American history that we’ve all lived through has made the importance of the Gettysburg Address more clear, and the value of his program more potent. And the situation in Israel, the October 7 terrorist attack and the war in Gaza, means that the Address is relevant in both places.
“With the election cycle this year, and what is going on in Israel, this is a sensitive day,” Rabbi Prouser said about Presidents Day, which is observed on Monday, February 19. “We always bring Israel into Presidents Day, as our sister democracy. We pray for both the United States and Israel. We are approaching that aspect of it carefully this year, because we always want to keep the event not exactly interfaith, but we want to speak to people outside the community, and also we want to be bipartisan.”
When he talks about the interfaith aspect of the morning, Rabbi Prouser makes clear that he is not talking about the content. He is not going to be any less favorable toward Israel than he had been or would be in another context, but “one of the themes that I am going to emphasize, given everything that is going on, is the profound responsibility of the private citizen in selecting national leaders.”
To quote President John F. Kennedy in his “Profiles in Courage,” Rabbi Prouser said, “In a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, ‘holds office’; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities.”
Rabbi Prouser paraphrased that thought. “In other words, we get the kind of president and government we deserve.”
The second theme is that “it’s not just that we get the politicians we deserve — the rest of the world does. Our choice impacts people all over the world.” Then Rabbi Prouser quoted Benjamin Rush, the Founding Father, Declaration of Independence signer, physician, and obvious polymath, who told a group of religious leaders in 1773: “Remember, the eyes of all Europe are fixed upon you, to preserve an asylum for freedom in the country, after the last pillars of it are fallen in every other quarter of the globe.”
To restate that thought, “We had a vision of America as an exemplar of freedom and democracy even before there was an America,” Rabbi Prouser said. “Our chief export is democracy. If we mess it up, it affects everyone.”
He has a personal example of the truth that Benjamin Rush described 250 years ago. He and his wife, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, the CEO and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, had a long conversation with a cab driver when they were in Poland a few years ago, going from Krakow to Auschwitz. The driver, a college student, talked knowledgably with them about the latest Supreme Court nomination; he was, in fact, arguably far more knowledgeable about it than a random cab driver his age in the United States would be.
Rabbi and Dr. Prouser asked him why he knew so much, and why he cared. “We were astounded,” Rabbi Prouser said. When he asked the driver why he paid so much attention to the news from overseas, he was told, “What happens to democracy in the United States affects us here in Krakow.”
As he ties the idea of democracy and patriotism in the United States and Israel together — carefully, and with nuance, because the ideas are more complicated that their surface might suggest — Rabbi Prouser quoted Benjamin Rush again.
“The holy men of old, of proportion as they possess a religious spirit were endowed with a public spirit,” Dr. Rush wrote. “What did Moses forsake and suffer for his countrymen! What shining examples of Patriotism do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, Maccabeus, and all the illustrious princes, captains, and prophets among the Jews!”
Steven Fulop is the mayor of Jersey City. He was at one of Rabbi Prouser’s first Presidents Day services, and he plans to join the crowd of officials at the upcoming one.
“The Gettysburg Address comes at a moment in our history when the country was divided,” Mr. Fulop said. “While the circumstances are different, it feels like the gap is widening now between different groups with different perspectives. We see more and more threats of violence and antisemitism, more and more hatred and division between parties, more and more lack of tolerance.
“The last time in our country’s history when the division was so extreme was the Civil War, and of course the Gettysburg Address speaks to that.”
Rabbi Prouser remembers that when Mr. Fulop was at the Presidents Day service, years ago, he honored the then early-in-his-first-term mayor with hagbah. He was to lift the Torah scroll, hold it high in the air so that the black ink was visible to the congregation, and then sit down with it, still holding it open. It’s done every time a Torah scroll is read, but it’s not easy. A Torah scroll is heavy. It takes strength to lift it up high.
“He comes up and approaches the Torah, and I say what I say to all outsiders when they have hagbah. ‘Be careful, choke up, use leverage, hold your shoulders high.’ And he looks at me and says, ‘Rabbi. I went to yeshiva for years.’”
His hagbah was flawless.
Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser
What: Invites the community to celebrate Presidents Day
Where: At his shul, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes
When: On Presidents Day — Monday, February 19 — at 8:30 a.m.
With: The Gettysburg Address in Hebrew, sung to a haftarah trope, along with other readings, and breakfast
For more information: Go to tenjfl.org