MIT's new Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, helped make history last week when he invited President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to join the rabbi's congregation in Martha's Vineyard for Rosh Hashonah services.
Never before had a sitting American president attended Jewish high holiday services, according to Jacob Marcus of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the dean of American Jewish history scholars.
Professor Marcus told Rabbi Plaut in a telephone conversation that other presidents had been to services but none had so honored the holiest of the Jewish holidays. The holiday period began with Rosh Hashonah on September 5, marking the Jewish year 5775, and ends tomorrow with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
"It was an historic occasion," Rabbi Plaut said. "He honored the spirit of diversity and religious pluralism in this country by his presence."
In ancient times, when the king arrived at the temple, he said, the congregation always feared the worst. "But here it is different. We are honored to have the leader of our country at our service."
Jokingly, he added that President Clinton should feel right at home with a Reform congregation. "We favor health reform, crime reform, welfare reform."
During his visit, President Clinton addressed the congregation briefly and spoke the traditional New Year's greeting, "Shanah Tovah."
The 500 people attending the services in the hall of the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown rose from their seats and applauded.
Rabbi Plaut came to MIT last fall as one of two Jewish chaplains (Miriam Rosenblum is the other) and rabbi for Hillel, the center for Jewish activities on campus. He serves part-time as rabbi for the Martha's Vineyard congregation. It is housed at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, but the building has become too small for the growing congregation and a new building is planned.
At the services, Rabbi Plaut drew laughter from the congregation and the Clintons when he said, "For the 10 days of Jewish holidays, we're calling [the church where the services were held] the Old Wailing Wall Church."
Rabbi Plaut invited President Clinton, who wore a white yarmulke, to join him in front of the congregation as he blew the ceremonial shofar, or ram's horn, to signify the beginning of the holidays. "You might think it is a Jewish saxophone," he said with a smile.
In his sermon, Rabbi Plaut thanked President Clinton on behalf of the Jewish people for his efforts in bringing peace to the Middle East and said he would go down in Jewish history as a peacemaker.
In his remarks, President Clinton said his efforts to bring about the Israel-Palestine accords were "one of the most rewarding things I've done."
Rabbi Plaut gave President Clinton, a Baptist, a Hebrew Bible with commentaries on the Torah written by Rabbi Gunther Plaut, his uncle. He also gave the president a 100-year-old silver Torah pointer, used in readings of the sacred Torah texts.
By coincidence, Rabbi Plaut said he discovered later that President Clinton "is a serious student of the Hebrew Bible."
He summed up his impression of the president, "whether you like his politics or not," as "a man of the people, warm, accessible and very bright."
President Clinton came to the services as the result of a letter written by Rabbi Plaut and conveyed to the president by Cambridge Attorney Alan Dershowitz, a member of the congregation. The invitation was also extended to Jewish members of the White House staff and the press corps.
Rabbi Plaut said he asked the Clintons to the service after a telephone conversation with his mother, Hadassah Plaut, who lives in Jerusalem, where the rabbi was raised. When the rabbi mentioned that the Clintons were on the island, he said, she urged him to invite them "because it's the right thing to do."
Rabbi Plaut mentioned this to President Clinton, who told the congregation that his own mother had been free with her advice to him and that Jewish mothers do not have a monopoly on "guilt peddling."
As the Clintons were leaving, Rabbi Plaut said, "Hillary said to me, `Say hi to your mom in Jerusalem for us.'"
(Information and quotations from articles in The Boston Globe and The Providence Journal-Bulletin were used in this story.)
A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 4).