When I first came to the Forest Hills Jewish Center thirty years ago, my first day of work was July 1. The fourth fell on Shabbat that year, so I was quickly introduced to a long-standing tradition of my new synagogue. On the Shabbat morning closest to the fourth of July- that year the day itself- “America the Beautiful” was sung as a closing hymn, instead of the customary “Adon Olam.”
Having grown up in a little shteibel, without benefit of clergy or any of the more formal trappings of a synagogue, the idea of singing anything in English as part of a synagogue service was completely foreign to me. But even more so- the idea of singing something like “America the Beautiful” as part of a Shabbat service would never even have occurred to anyone. To me, it seemed odd as best, and- to be perfectly honest- more than a little hokey.
Fast forward thirty years, and I am obliged to admit that my opinion of the practice has changed completely.
Aging thirty years has a lot to do with it, I’m sure, as does understanding the community I serve and being more sensitive to how it expresses its innermost feelings. So does living through a few wars, and seeing how my generation’s cynicism towards the military has evolved into a much healthier, and richly deserved, respect for those who risk their lives to protect our freedom. Having two congregants who served in the army in Iraq, and a son-in-law about to serve abroad as a Navy chaplain, also has helped me appreciate the cost of freedom.
But it’s not only on the fourth of July that we try to access those feelings. Each and every Shabbat, along with many other congregations of all denominations, we recite a prayer for the United States and its leaders- a sentiment mandated by the Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers. Whether the President be a Republican or a Democrat, conservative or liberal, we pray for his wisdom, insight and well-being, and that of his cabinet and all those entrusted with leading this most remarkable country.
This past Shabbat, in introducing that prayer, I mentioned that, by all appearances, the Jewish Diaspora experience here in the United States has been extraordinarily successful. America has been open and welcoming to us in unprecedented ways, to the extent that there are those who would argue that we have, as a community, been the victims of “be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” Assimilation and its challenges are the necessary byproduct of America’s unprecedented openness to us.
From where I sit, the success of the American Diaspora has been an unmitigated blessing, possibly unique in the history of our people. But that word “possibly” is irreducibly important in understanding our circumstances here.
Any serious student of Jewish history will surely know that the Jews of Spain during the Golden Age, and, more to the point, the Jews of Germany in the early decades of the twentieth century, thought they were living in earthly Jerusalem. They were acculturated into the highest levels of government and the arts, and were widely respected for their contributions to society as a whole. And we all know how those diasporas ended…
As we prepared to recite our regular, weekly prayer for America, I mentioned to the congregation that this great country is, indeed, a wonderful blessing to us. And as we pray for its wellbeing, we also pray for it to remain a blessing and fly in the face of Jewish history. It is, possibly, unique. We dare to hope…
And as we prepared to rise and sing “America the Beautiful” to conclude our service, I smiled and thought to myself how wonderful it is to be able to feel proud of one’s country, and to do so in a prayerful context. Indeed… “God shed His grace on thee!”