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First Couple Attends MIT Rabbi's Service

By Hyun Soo Kim
News Editor

President Clinton made history last Monday evening by being the first U.S. president to attend a Jewish high holiday service. The Rosh Hashana service at Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, was conducted by Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, who also has a chaplaincy at MIT.

Clinton ushered in the Jewish New Year 5755 by saying the New Year's wish "Shanah tovah," which means, "May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for good deeds."

The congregation of approximately 650 people attending the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center service at the Old Whaling Church then rose to their feet and applauded the occasion.

"He honored the spirit of diversity and religious pluralism in this country by his presence," Plaut said.

Rosh Hashana signifies the anniversary of the creation of the world, and God's sovereignty of the world. It is also a day of remembrance, a time for personal renewal, and a time to seek repentance and forgiveness from one's fellow human beings and God, Plaut said.

The service started at 7:30 p.m., with President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in attendance, Plaut said. President Clinton wore a white yarmulke for the service, in addition to a suit and tie.

Plaut informed the Clintons that the Vineyard was a Reform congregation, quipping, "We like anything to do with reform - health reform, election reform," according to an article in The Boston Globe on Sept. 7.

"After lighting the candles, I said that the President honored Jewish people with his presence," Plaut said. "Then I spoke about two areas of significance for the Jewish community."

Plaut addressed the peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and the struggle for social reform and economic justice for all in the United States, he said. Plaut also commended Clinton on his work to limit proliferation of nuclear weapons and the crime bill.

"[Clinton] participated in the service - singing, reading, and prayer," Plaut said. "Personally, it was very moving to see them in service praying and feeling like he is part of the congregation."

At the end of the service, Plaut blessed the Clintons and said a prayer for the U.S. government and its leader. After the service, Plaut presented the Clintons with a Jewish Bible and a 100-year-old silver pointer from a Jewish community in Morocco.

President and Mrs. Clinton belong to the Baptist and Methodist denominations of Christianity, respectively.

Rabbi Plaut not nervous

"I had very few notes, and I spoke from the heart. I was moved by the moment myself," Plaut said. "[Clinton] was moved to near tears twice in the evening."

Plaut said that he was not nervous. "I have met famous people such as Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan before."

Plaut invited the Clintons at the suggestion of his mother who lives in Jerusalem. "I was completely surprised by his accepting the invitation," Plaut said.

"He probably accepted to express solidarity with a constituent group of the American people and maybe for political reasons," Plaut said.

The president's visit was kept secret until the last minute, and all media was banned except for White House photographers.

Rabbi Plaut, 37, became rabbi of MIT Hillel on Aug. 1, 1993. Among his responsibilities, Plaut oversees Jewish religious life on campus, works with students on maintaining the Kosher Kitchen facilities, teaches classes on Judaism, and counsels students, staff, and professors.

"I also do outreach to bring in to the Jewish community the uninvolved Jewish students and MIT staff," Plaut said.

Plaut splits his time between MIT and his Vineyard congregation.