In Age of Trump, U.S. Rabbis Wrestle With Reciting Traditional Blessing for Country's Leaders

Some congregants have replaced the words in the prayer from 'protect' our democracy into a plea to 'restore' it.

Anti-Trump protesters at the Philadelphia International Airport, January 29, 2017.
Jessica Kourkounis/AFP

NEW YORK – Rabbis Angela Buchdahl and Yoshi Zweiback stood in a hotel conference space above the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport Monday morning, singing a song they had just written that pleads with God to let in feelings of kindness, love and justice.

“Pitchu b’hesed, pitchu b’ahava, pitchu b’tzedek.Open us to kindness, open us to love, open us to justice,” the rabbis harmonized before Buchdahl, who is a cantor as well as rabbi, sang words from Emma Lazarus’ iconic poem on the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Bring the homeless tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door. Let them in. Let them in.let it in.”

"Let It In," a song about openness that has become increasingly popular in some congregations.

They lead morning services for 100 rabbis gathered in Dallas for a meeting of Reform temple clergy. It happened to take place in the hotel right above the airport just as dozens of foreign-born immigrants were being detained. They had been caught in the snare of a surprise executive order issued by President Trump Friday night, prohibiting the entry of anyone from Syria or seven other mainly Muslim countries. Family members and volunteer lawyers had also gathered to try to get them released, while hundreds of protestors clogged the international arrivals terminal until the last detainees were released. The rabbis spoke with family members, lawyers and protestors, which inspired Zweiback to begin writing the new song.

On Friday night Buchdahl plans to teach the new song, “Let It In,” to her congregants at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, which, with 2,300 member households, is one of the country’s biggest.

"Both our sacred texts as well as our Jewish history remind us that we were strangers, and need to speak up on behalf of the stranger and the refugee,” Buchdahl told Haaretz.

It is but one of several liturgical changes and additions that rabbis across the United States are making in a religious response to the policies being adopted by the new president, which they view as antithetical to Jewish, and American, values.

Rabbis in many congregations are specifically wrestling with the "Prayer for Our Country," which is customarily recited during weekday and Sabbath services and includes a blessing for the nation as well as its leaders and advisors.

'A lot of crying lately'

Congregants at Netivot Shalom in Berkely, California continue to recite the "Prayer for Our Country" from Siddur Sim Shalom and an alternative version adapted from an old Reform prayer book, which is more pointed and asks the government “to preserve and protect our democracy,” Rabbi Menachem Creditor told Haaretz.

Some Netivot members are changing the words of the prayer for the country, from “preserve and protect our democracy” to “preserve and restore,” he said. “There is an incredible intensity to that prayer right now. We feel that the prayer is less descriptive of our reality and more filled with a fear of losing those ideals.”

Last Shabbat he told his congregants, “‘if you’ve ever offered yourself through this prayer to our country, do it now.’ People have been very emotional. There was a lot of crying in the sanctuary, especially these last two weeks” since Trump’s inauguration, Creditor told Haaretz.

Woody Guthrie singing "This Land is Your Land" has become a recent favorite at some congregations.

Beyond individuals altering the words of prayers they say, Creditor anticipates that there will be wider changes in services at the 420-household Conservative synagogue in the coming weeks. “Sometimes change happens just by practice,” he said. “There has been a very important shift on the emotional, spiritual and maybe even on the liturgical level.”

Woody Guthrie makes a comeback

At Los Angeles’ Ikar , an innovative independent congregation of 615 households, during the presidential campaign members started sending Rabbi Sharon Brous poems to read in place of the "Prayer for Our Country," which was not routinely recited as written to begin with. Previously, Brous would read select lines of that prayer from the Conservative movement siddur, Lev Shalem. But “the language didn’t express our deepest aspirations,” she told Haaretz in an interview.

Rabbi David Zaslaw of Oregon’s Havurah Shir Hadash.
Teya Jacobi

Now congregants send texts written by poets from Emma Lazarus to Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes. Some weeks they read adaptations of the Jewish prayer for the country from different moments in time, Brous said, adding that singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” has been a recent favorite.

And while some American Jews tell their rabbis that they’re uncomfortable saying prayers for President Trump, never before has an American leader needed them more, some told Haaretz.

Rabbi David Zaslow is working on a new prayer he will offer at his independent congregation in Ashland, Oregon, Havurah Shir Hadash , this Shabbat.

Members of Zaslow's 160-household congregation ask him, "How can you pray for our government or pray for Donald Trump?” he said. “I tell them ‘that’s who needs our prayers. People who are wrong, who are struggling, suffering. So our government needs our prayers,’” he said. The prayer he offers next Saturday “will be for Congress and the president, with tzedekh [justice] as the core mitzvah. It will be asking for transformation, to come back to sanity and health and justice.”

“Not to divide our country like he seems to be doing. Not to create an internal civil war, which seems to be getting worse, but that he rises up to the vision of the Torah,” said Zaslow.

Buchdahl explains to congregants that the conventional "Prayer for Our Country," which “asks for wisdom and forbearance for our leaders, is an aspirational prayer. It’s not blessing the president.”

To Rabbi David Ingber, founder and spiritual leader of the independent upper Manhattan congregation Romemu, “prayer is a form of spiritual resistance,” he told Haaretz. He has been saying a prayer regularly for the country only since the election. He initially recited one from an old version of the Conservative movement prayer book, but realized he feels more comfortable speaking from his heart.

Since the inauguration Ingber has been saying, “Source of life, we are the beneficiaries of a great movement toward democracy in America, a land founded on the richness of diversity and the power of our differences. We are greater because of the freedoms that we have. Please give strength to the president and administration to remember the dignity of each and every one of your children created in Your image. Give them counsel and wisdom to overcome voices of hatred, voices of division, voices that would undermine the values upon which this great democracy was founded. At this time a great discord and dissonance give all of us as citizens the ability to remember our power and our responsibility and obligation to listen; to learn, to lead and to long for a world where tolerance and love and compassion are actualized.”

Praying for Solomonic wisdom in a hurry

In less than two weeks as president, Trump has already done things “that are scaring my people,” Ingber told Haaretz. “We are praying to God that he put some Solomonic wisdom into this man in a hurry.”

Whatever benefit prayer may confer upon the president, Ingber says it is just as much for the benefit of congregants in the 600-household independent community. “Prayer matters,” he said. “I have strong belief in the power of prayer in communal, faith-based ways. It reminds us to place this struggle into a spiritual frame.”

At Central Synagogue , Buchdahl is currently struggling with how much to allow politics into Shabbat services. The congregation typically recites the "Prayer for Our Country" only around elections and inaugurations, she said, no matter the winner’s political party.

“Shabbat should be a release from the chaos and noise and pain and despair and feeling of inadequacy to change things,” she told Haaretz. “This should be a window of time in our week when we can have some sense of sanctuary away from all of that.”

When Central Synagogue-goers recited the "Prayer for Our Country" hours after Trump was inaugurated president, she taught that such prayers date back to the earliest days of exile from Jerusalem, to the Prophet Jeremiah in 586 B.C.E. “As long as we Jews have been in galut [exile] we’ve had a prayer for the government we’re under.” It is typically like a mishebeyrach, or request for blessing, for the community, she told Haaretz. But “when we sang ‘Let It In’ on Monday, there was definitely the sense of pleading to the government,” she said.

The Talmud requires that prayer be conducted in a building with windows. The lesson is that “our prayer has to be connected to the world in some way,” Buchdahl noted.

While Central Synagogue isn’t likely to make the "Prayer for Our Country " part of every week’s Shabbat services, she is considering making “Let It In” a regular feature.