When members of Congress along with thousands of invited guests, President George Bush, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Bono gathered for the National Prayer breakfast last week, event organizers were reportedly more accommodating to their non-Christian guests than they were last year. It seems as if they didn’t necessarily hold the Jesus, but they at least didn’t serve him as the entree.
The breakfast, which has been held annually for 54 years now and attracts between 3,000 and 4,000 dignitaries and laypeople to the Hilton Mayflower Hotel in Washington, is sponsored by the International Foundation, an evangelical Christian organization that uses the teachings and the spirit of Jesus to do work in developing and war-torn countries. Though it has all of the trappings of an official congressional event, it is a privately run affair.
When Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood attended last year’s breakfast with Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Ninth Dist.), he returned to New Jersey quite upset with the tenor of the supposedly ecumenical event.
"It was a Jesus meeting," Goldin told The Jewish Standard on his return. He had been largely upset by a page in a packet of materials that quoted Dr. Richard Halverson, a former U.S. Senate chaplain that began, "Jesus Christ transcends all religions! Judaism-Islam-Buddhism-Hinduism He is greater than all these including Christianity."
When Goldin returned to New Jersey his story was reported in the Standard, and he wrote an opinion piece for the New York Jewish Week about the event. The story made national news.
Goldin sent several letters to Rothman and to Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jewish lawmakers who spoke at the event, in an attempt to both vent his frustration with the tenor of the event and to see if it could be changed in the future.
His public displeasure prompted a face-to-face meeting last spring with the chairmen of this year’s event, Coleman and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), along with Doug Coe, the head of the International Foundation. The meeting with Coe came as a surprise to many, as he is normally reclusive and rarely speaks with the media.
Goldin, on sabbatical in Israel this year, told the Standard on Tuesday that in the hour-long meeting, the three men spoke about the nature of the breakfast and about the different interpretations and uses of Jesus that would be offensive to non-Christians. Though the three did not see eye-to-eye on everything, and Coe was reportedly reluctant to abandon Jesus as a central figure in the breakfast, Goldin "was surprised at their responsiveness. There was a clear indication that I had hit a nerve."
Coleman and Pryor also had several conversations regarding the matter with Nathan Diament, the director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, though Diament would not disclose to the Standard details about those conversations.
The meetings seemed to have helped, said Rothman, who this year took as his guests Father James N. Loughran, the president of St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, and the Rev. Marylyn Monroe Harris of the First Baptist Church in Teaneck.
"It was significantly better this year," Rothman told the Standard. "The material and the speakers were much more inclusive, and they removed any reference that appeared last year that Jesus transcends all religions."
The literature from the event that Rothman provided the Standard, including the event’s program, which was at every place setting at the Hilton, along with some literature available on each table, was still very Jesus- and God-centric.
It included quotes from a number of U.S. presidents, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton to both of the Bushes. Among them was George Washington’s prayer for the United States of America from June 8, 1783, which ends "Grant our supplication, we beseech Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord."
But from various accounts, the event was more diverse than in years past. Coleman was the first Jew to act as a chairman, and in his opening remarks, he recited the Sh’ma in Hebrew. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) also spoke and gave a Hebrew praye. Though President George Bush and U’ lead singer Bono headlined the speakers, King Abdullah II of Jordan, believed to be a descendant of Mohammed, according to JTA, may have been the most well received. In his concluding remarks, Abdullah drew from the Koran and the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
From third-hand reports and discussions with Diament, Goldin said that he was relatively pleased with what he heard of this year’s event.
"’Satisfied’ is not the right word, but I am pleased with the responsiveness," he said."[It also] shows that someone can make a difference if they try."