Rabbi Jack Riemer and President Bill Clinton
Jack Riemer, who inspired
San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, June 25, 1999:
By Donald H. Harrison
San Diego, CA (special) -- Among his colleagues, Jack Riemer is known as the "rabbi's rabbi." But since last September, when Bill Clinton read one of Riemer's compositions at the National Prayer Breakfast, he also has been known around the country as the "President's rabbi."
The prayer, A Time for Turning, was particularly poignant for Clinton who then still was facing impeachment on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from his extra-marital affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Found in the prayer books of several Jewish religious movements, Rabbi Riemer's composition reads:
To everything there is a season,
Now is the time for turning.
The leaves are beginning to turn
The birds are beginning to turn
For leaves, birds, and animals
It takes an act of will
It means breaking with old habits
It means losing face;
It means saying: 'I am sorry.'
These things are terribly hard to do.
Lord, help us turn--
From callousness to sensitivity,
From pettiness to purpose,
From carelessness to discipline,
Turn us around, O Lord, and bring us back towards You.
And turn us towards each other, Lord,
Clinton had been shown the prayer in the Reform Movement's High Holy Day prayerbook by a Miami businessman, and at the National Prayer Breakfast the President reported that the words had given him a lot of strength.
About two months later, Riemer and the President were both invited to a party in Boca Raton. They had an opportunity to speak together briefly..
"He was very gracious and he talked about how prayer helped him get through a very tough time, and that he was grateful for it," Riemer recalled.
"I don't think I am being naive when I say this: I was very moved by a human being struggling to do one of the hardest things that a human being can ever do, especially a leader, which is admit mistakes," the rabbi added. "I was deeply moved by what I think was the genuine effort to atone that he was expressing. Maybe I am naive but I don't think so."
Of course, when Riemer wrote the prayer years before, he had no idea it would prove to be solace to a President of the United States, a non-Jew. But, Riemer said, "the more personal a prayer is, the more universal it is.
"Prayer is a never ending challenge," he said. "You go forward one step, back one step, in a search for prayer -- in the effort to acheive real prayer. No one can be glib about it. No one can say 'I know how to pray.'"
The rabbi/author suggested that "there are two ways a prayer can be meaningful: one is when it comes from the heart and becomes a prayer -- when you write a new prayer. The other comes from the prayer and enters the heart. You take an old prayer, meditate on it, or think on it, until it becomes yours."
Riemer said that "different generations need different kinds of help" to pray. Once, responsive readings may have helped congregants form their thoughts and address them to God, but today, Riemer suggested, "there is very little responsiveness in responsive reading. We read them like we read the newspaper. We are not convinced. We do it without enthusiasm, mechanically."
On the other hand, prayers which expedite more personal encounters between the congregants and God are becoming increasingly popular, he said.
"In our synagogue, at Neilah, which is the last service at Yom Kippur, we invite anyone who wants to come up with their family, if they want to, and stand before the Ark, while the service is going on, and say whatever they want to in their own words before God," Riemer related.
"And I am amazed, people line up and down the aisle and come in droves. A generation ago, people would have thought that was primitive and old fashioned, East European, how can we do it? People line up and down the aisles to have a few minutes of silence in front of the Ark with their kids, and to say whatever they want to say."
A second example is during Shabbat services when the prayer for the sick is recited, "people come forward to give me the names of people whom they care about; again they line up in droves. Who would have believed that a generation ago?"
Riemer said that his sermons and his prayers have a great deal in common, in that they try to deal with highly personal human questions. "What I have learned through preaching is that I don't talk about world affairs. I don't talk about what Clinton or Yeltsin should do.
"They are not there to hear me; they are not even members of my synagogue," he said.
"What I do talk about is the personal issues--that is what I think our people come to shul for, on (the High Holy Days) especially -- with questions like "what does God have to say about cancer?' And 'What am I doing with my life?'; 'Why is my marriage so dull?'; 'Why is my job so empty?' I think these are the real questions that people come for and not whether we should give back the West Bank or not."
His focus on the personal has earned Riemer a very special place among his rabbinical colleagues. He heads a group known as the "National Rabbinic Network" through which he gives assistance to rabbis of all the movements.
Rabbis who are going through personal crises may call Riemer and "we send someone to counsel with them, to give them strength. What is interesting is that Orthodox rabbis ask for Reform rabbis to come and vice versa, for the privacy. And there are hundreds of rabbis who belong to the program."
Besides writing material for sermons, Riemer also has extensively collected anecdotes from religious and secular sources. When rabbis around the country need material for their sermons, they can access his collection of thoughts through the internet. Access to the site is restricted to rabbis.
But San Diegans who are rabbis, as well as those who are not, will have equal access to Riemer's Bible-based lectures at the Jewish Community Center at 4126 Executive Drive in La Jolla.
The first lecture at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, July 6, is called: "Men are from Abraham and Women are From Sarah." The second at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, July 8, is about "The Woman Who Tried to Juggle a Career and a Family-And Almost Succeeded." Finally, at a 9 a.m. breakfast on Sunday, July 11, Riemer will discuss "What I Have Learned from Women."
He declined to elaborate much upon the lectures, saying that the titles were meant to be teasers to encourage attendance . Self-deprecatingly, he added that upon hearing the last title his wife quipped: "That ought to be a short lecture!"
Asked about the concern often expressed by women's groups that the Bible is written in a male voice, Riemer responded that was why he wanted to address such a topic in his three lectures.
"What I am doing is to make audible the female voice," he said. "It is there, but it has been ignored, repressed; it hasn't been noticed, and that is why I am doing the series."
The lectures are being offered by the JCC's Cultural Arts Department,
which also presents each year the popular Jewish Film Festival, Jewish
Book Fair, and Streisand Family Festival of New Jewish Plays. Coordinator
Jackie Gmach said a series ticket for $30 includes the Sunday breakfast.
Otherwise, the evening lectures each cost $10 per person, and the lecture
with breakfast is $18. Tickets may be ordered from the JCC by calling in
the new San