Since 1953, the US National Prayer Breakfast has been held annually in Washington on the first Thursday of February, hosted by members of Congress. No matter how vitriolic the fighting on Capitol Hill, the breakfast goes on.
This year’s breakfast, for instance, was chaired by senators Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, and Mark Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas. Since the days of Dwight Eisenhower, the president has attended, too. The audience of 3,500 includes most of Congress, ambassadors and heads of state. Last week, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama took part in the breakfast, as did Vice President Joe Biden. I was there, too, because my husband Gerald Schroeder, the scientist-author, was the final speaker of the day, discussing the congruence of modern science and Torah.
In the giant ballroom of the Washington Hilton, the crowd included a scattering of Jews and Muslims with covered heads, as well as Indians of different religions in saris. Like America itself, the participants were mostly Christian. Our table included ambassadors and Christian leadership activists who had flown in from Australia. Wrapped kosher meals and cutlery appeared magically before us, and in a show of ecumenical striving, our friendly table-mates joined hands in wrestling with the protective cellophane wrappings so we could join in breakfast.
A few prayers were offered, but the focus was on soulful speeches. The keynote speech was given by well-known Baltimore pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, an African-American who described his childhood in poverty and his single but strong-minded mom.
He lambasted political correctness, and then went on to put forth his views on health care and the national debt, which don’t jibe with the president’s.
No matter what your political leanings, being in a room with the president of the United States is exhilarating, and the current president is, of course, among the world’s most charismatic speakers. He may have been annoyed by Carson’s speech – this isn’t a forum to debate – but he took the high road and didn’t strike back. His only mention of the speech referred to Carson’s mom’s no-TV policy. Obama said he might try that on his daughters.
Said the president, “It says something about us that every year, in times of triumph and in tragedy, in calm and in crisis, we come together, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as brothers and sisters, and as children of God. Every year, in the midst of all our busy and noisy lives, we set aside one morning to gather as one community, united in prayer.”
Every day, it turns out, a member of his staff is responsible for sending him a snippet of Scripture on which to meditate.
Who would have guessed? Most memorable for me was his emotional description of the two Bibles on which he put his hand to be sworn in for a second term: one belonging to Abraham Lincoln and the second to Martin Luther King, Jr.
“As I prepared to take the sacred oath, I thought about these two men, and I thought of how, in times of joy and pain and uncertainty, they turned to their Bibles to seek the wisdom of God’s word – and thought of how, for as long as we’ve been a nation, so many of our leaders, our presidents and our preachers, our legislators and our jurists have done the same,” he said.
AMERICA IS, of course, a religious nation. A well-known 2008 Pew Research Center study showed that the wealthier a country is, the less important religion is... with a notable exception: the United States. In addition, Americans pray more often than do others in the West. A majority of Americans (54 percent) report praying at least once a day. Members of Congress actually get together each week and pray for each other and for the benefit of the nation. We were invited to a private dinner where senators from opposing parties said they disagreed about almost every issue but felt a strong bond because they prayed together.
Israel isn’t included in this survey of religiosity. We can surmise that it would be placed in the exception category with the US. Few here are neutral on religion in our country. Even those who are anti-religious are fervent about it.
Indeed, the Bible plays a huge role in our national consciousness. When David Ben-Gurion decided to declare the State of Israel despite international opposition, he’d doubtless been influenced by his own devotion to the Bible. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu holds weekly study sessions, as did prime minister Menachem Begin. And they aren’t considered so-called “religious.”
Decades ago, when my husband was sworn in to the IDF, he was handed a Bible. His commanding officer said, “Read it. If you don’t know what’s inside and you serve in the IDF, you’re no more than a thief.”
Washington has formalized its prayer habits by holding its weekly prayer for Congress members; the breakfast is the culmination. The president suggested that prayer could, at the least, contribute to humility. All we can do, he said, “is live our lives in a godly way and assume that those with whom we deal every day, including those in an opposing party, are groping their way, doing their best, going through the same struggles we’re going through.”
I BEGAN wondering how a weekly prayer session would go over in the Knesset. I’m not talking about a minyan with fixed Jewish prayers or those recited regularly by Muslims or Christians.
I’m thinking more of direct prayers to the Creator in our own personal words: prayers for each other and for the State of Israel. Ironic, isn’t it, that in our country, with its tenuous position in the world, some of our legislators would be averse to the magnificent prayer for the welfare of Israel composed by Nobel prize-winning writer S.Y. Agnon.
Just picture a room full of Knesset members praying for each other. Since this wouldn’t be a formal prayer service, we wouldn’t have to make it look like a synagogue, with men and women separate, and the question of the height of the mehitza wouldn’t be argued. The various religious parties wouldn’t have to storm out if the Ashkenazi or Sephardi prayer formula weren’t used.
At the American prayer breakfast, the two senators who happened to be at the opposite ends of our table expressed affection for each other despite the rancor between Democrats and Republicans – and gave credit to the prayer sessions. Several freshman Congress members talked about how welcome they felt at the breakfast while still learning to cope in their new jobs.
I like the idea of veteran Knesset member Haneen Zoabi and newcomer Moshe Feiglin, veteran Nitzan Horowitz and newcomer Orit Struck spending an hour praying together before sessions on Sunday morning.
No one is pinning the resolution of the deficit problem on prayer in Washington.
Despite the image of the naïve American, realpolitik dominates America’s Capitol. Indeed, before returning to the White House, the president wished that the morning prayers at the Hilton would have a longer shelf life.
Still, upping the prayer quotient for the 19th Knesset can’t hurt.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
The views in her columns are her own.