Monday, January 30, 2006

Some Jews fret over tone of prayer breakfast

WASHINGTON (AP) — The annual National Prayer Breakfast will be co-chaired by Sen. Norm Coleman on Thursday, the first time in memory that a Jew will be leading the annual religious gathering. But Coleman's leadership comes at a time when some rabbis have expressed misgivings about what they see as the event's overtly Christian tone.

Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, raised some eyebrows himself at last year's breakfast when he said, "I have a profound respect for the tangibility and accessibility of God that my colleagues find in Jesus."

A New Jersey rabbi in attendance, Shmuel Goldin, was so taken aback by that and other Jesus references, such as registration material that said "Jesus Christ transcends all religions," that he wrote to Coleman to express his concerns. Coleman invited Goldin to meet with him last spring, and agreed to make some changes for this year's breakfast, according to both men.

Jews reject the Christian belief that Jesus is God.

"He raised some concerns that I as a Jew was sensitive to," Coleman said in a telephone interview. "He was concerned about proselytizing literature; we're going to try to make sure that that isn't the case."

In addition to Coleman and Goldin, the meeting also included the other co-chairman of this year's breakfast, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Douglas Coe, leader of the Fellowship Foundation, an evangelical Christian group that puts on the breakfast.

Goldin said he asked the participants why, if the breakfast was truly non-denominational, it had so many references to meeting "in the spirit of Jesus."

"That was one area we couldn't come to terms on," said Goldin, an orthodox rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J.

"At a non-denominational event, there should be a recognition that different religions worship differently and believe differently," said Goldin, who is on sabbatical in Jerusalem this year. "And the assumption that everyone benefits from being under the spirit of Jesus really runs counter to this concept of diversity."

Although the breakfast has historically been a Christian event, Jews have had more of a presence in recent years — including a speech by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., an orthodox Jew.

Conservatives from different religions have made common cause in recent years over issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and public funding faith-based programs. However, theological differences, like the ones at issue at the prayer breakfast, remain.

The Foundation declined to make Coe available for an interview. In a rare interview in 2002, Coe told the Los Angeles Times, "Religion is divisive. The ideas of Jesus are cohesive."

The Fellowship Foundation puts on the breakfast every year without government funding, although presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush have attended, along with members of Congress and world leaders. This year, King Abdullah II of Jordan will give the keynote speech at a lunch following the breakfast.

Foundation officials referred questions to former Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., who has worked with the foundation on the breakfast. He conceded that the "spirit of Jesus" could be offensive to Jews.

But he said it was significant that a Jew was co-chairing the event. "It makes a statement that this is an event for Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists," he said.

Some prominent Jews don't see it that way.

"The prayer breakfast is judenrein — the German word for Jewish-free — it's not the neighborhood we're accustomed to visiting," said Rabbi Kurt Stone, author of the book The Congressional Minion: The Jews of Capitol Hill," a collection of biographies of Jewish members of Congress.

"It's more the home for fundamentalists and evangelical Christians," Stone said, adding he was uncomfortable with Coleman's references to Jesus in last year's speech.

Coleman made those references while discussing the weekly Senate prayer breakfast meetings that he also co-chairs. "We meet around the person and principles of Jesus," he said at the 2005 prayer breakfast.

In the interview, Coleman called those comments "an honest reflection of the fact that for many of my colleagues in that weekly prayer breakfast, there is a lot of focus on Christ. What I've gotten out of that is a respect for my colleagues' belief.

"On the other hand, when I have a chance to give a prayer, I give the Hebrew blessing. And I think my colleagues appreciate that."

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, said that if the breakfast was more ecumenical, more non-Christians would feel comfortable attending.

"On the other hand, I don't know of anyone who has been forced to attend this event," he said. "Freedom of religion means freedom of religion for everybody. So as long as I can express my faith freely, I can't really find a problem with other people doing the same."

Added Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: "To the extent that Senator Coleman's co-chairing signifies a more inclusive approach, I think that's a positive development. Whether it represents a shift in tone remains to be seen when the event occurs."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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