This year, for the first time in three years, Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes was able to host the Presidents Day program he created.
Rabbi Prouser, a graduate of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and a passionate student of American history, translated the Gettysburg Address into Hebrew and set it to haftarah trope.
Until the pandemic paused all in-person gatherings, he invited the community, including local officials, whether or not they’re Jewish, to a Shacharit service. He’d daven the entire service — Rabbi Prouser is a conservative Conservative Jew, and the truncated services that some rabbis in his movement offer are not for him — the polite incomprehension of some of his guests notwithstanding, he would always go through the entire service. When he came to it, he’d read that week’s Torah portion — Presidents Day always is celebrated on a Monday, so the Torah always is read — and then, at the part of the service where the haftarah is read on Shabbat, although of course not on a weekday, he would read the Address. He’d begin it not with the bracha that comes before an actual haftarah, but the blessing for having been born free.
Then he’d continue with the service, which always would include readings from presidents and other prominent figures, mostly American, mostly politicians, all statesmen.
This year, he decided that too many people are not yet ready to sit in synagogue pews for an entire service, so he put together a program that included breakfast, the Address, and the readings, but not the service.
It was glorious to be back in person.
And the Gettysburg Address was if anything even more powerful three years later. Our political situation has darkened – something we hadn’t thought possible three years ago, when it seemed very dark, because we were young and naïve back then. Its wisdom seems even more profound. And because its deep truths are put in simple, straightforward language, you don’t have to be fluent in Hebrew to be able to listen to it, read it in English at the same time, and be struck doubly by both its power and its shattering beauty.
We too, like Abraham Lincoln, hope that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Next, we moved on to the readings, a collection of wisdom that Rabbi Prouser put together himself, and as always it was eye-opening.
He included among the readings such truths as “Let us by all wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties.” That was James Monroe, and yes, intelligence among the people would be a very good thing.
Rabbi Prouser quoted at some length from a short, brilliant piece, “The Responsibility of Citizens in a Democracy,” by the early-20th-century poet Stephen Vincent Benet.
“When by idle word and vain prejudice, I create distrust of democracy itself, by so much do I diminish all democracy,” Benet tells us. “When I tell my children that all politics is a rotten machine and all politicians thieves and liars, by so much do I shake their faith in the world that they too must build. When I let loose intolerance, whether it be of race, creed or class, I am letting loose a tiger. When I spend my time vilifying and abusing a duly-elected government of the people because I did not vote for it, by so much do I weaken confidence in government by the people itself. Rich or poor, young or old, Republican or Democrat, I cannot afford these things.”
Why is that, Mr. Benet? “I cannot afford them because there are forces loose in the world that would wipe all democracy out,” he answers. “They will take my idle words and make their own case with them. They will take my halfhearted distrust, and with it sow, not merely distrust, but disunion. They will take my hate and make of it a consuming fire.
Please, read the whole thing, and take it seriously.
But it is important to stress that the point of Rabbi Prouser’s program is not fear or gloom. It is hope.
The politicians in the room, some Democrats, some Republicans, all are very local. The elected offices they hold are not glamorous. But unlike the rest of us, each one of them cares enough about democracy to have bothered to run for office, a task that sounds not only time-consuming and expensive, but also emotionally risky. And they showed up at this synagogue, at 8:30 in the morning on a civic holiday, to show their connection to the American ideal.
Later that day, we learned that President Biden had gone to Ukraine. The trip was genuinely dangerous — there’s a war going on, and the president went not to a secure base but to Kyiv. It also was genuinely thrilling, showcasing the America we used to think we knew.
As President Biden stood there, striking in his suit and sunglasses, next to the extraordinarily brave, smart, and charismatic (and Jewish!) President Volodymyr Zelensky, against the sharp blue sky and the glittering golden domes, many of us felt our pride in being American stir.
This was a very good Presidents Day.